reuters | 17.08.2004 03:06 | Venezuela
best out of three?
Chavez Wins Referendum, Vows to Deepen Revolution
Mon Aug 16, 2004 10:19 PM ET
By Patrick Markey
CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez easily won a referendum on his rule and offered on Monday to open a dialogue with his opponents, while vowing to intensify the reforms at the heart of the nation's political conflict.
World oil prices eased on hopes the clear result would end more than two years of confrontation between the populist leader and critics who say he wants to convert the world's fifth-largest oil exporter to Cuban-style communism.
A triumphant Chavez, who survived a coup two years ago and a grueling oil industry strike a year later, urged his opponents to accept his offer of talks.
"We've initiated a new phase to deepen this project. ... The people must know that now more than ever we will pay the social debt," said Chavez, whose reforms have diverted oil wealth to housing, medicine and education for the poor.
But opposition leaders pledged to prove their assertions that the referendum result was a "gigantic fraud," despite its endorsement so far by international observers.
"We will not rest until we have proved that the will of the Venezuelan people was ignored," said Enrique Mendoza of the opposition Democratic Coordinator coalition, adding that the referendum should be repeated.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who led the observers' mission, said its checks matched results from the National Electoral Council, which gave Chavez 58 percent of the vote in Sunday's recall election.
Chavez' victory was a blistering defeat for the opposition, a coalition of political parties, labor unions and civilian groups that fought for more than a year to secure a vote against a leader they accuse of authoritarian rule.
After the results, Caracas remained calm apart from small pockets of protests. Gunmen on motorbikes wounded at least seven people in wealthy eastern Caracas after opposition leaders called for protests.
One of the injured, an elderly woman, later died in a hospital, officials said. Mendoza blamed pro-Chavez supporters for the attack but pledged the opposition would use peaceful, democratic means to challenge the government.
SUPPORT FROM POOR
Critics forced the referendum on Chavez by obtaining 2.4 million signatures on a petition, but the results showed the country's poor backed the charismatic president, a friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Buoyed by soaring oil prices, Chavez had bolstered public spending on his programs for the impoverished majority.
Chavez foes often criticized top National Electoral Council officials as biased in favor of the president, who was first elected in 1998. They said the recall results were a fraud aided by electronic voting machines.
But Carter said no signs of fraud had been found so far.
In Washington, U.S. officials said the observers' assessment pressured the opposition to either accept defeat or flesh out their fraud claims so they could be investigated.
Chavez presents himself as a regional voice against U.S. imperialism, and he has clashed frequently with Washington over the direction of his left-leaning government. But he said he hoped the vote result would help improve relations.
Oil markets worried that a Chavez defeat could trigger unrest in the military and the state oil firm PDVSA, sectors he has purged to ensure key posts are in the hands of loyalists. But Venezuelan oil industry officials said operations were running normally after the vote.
Oil prices slipped from record highs close to $47 to about $46 a barrel, with energy traders saying Chavez's victory eased the threat of disruptions to exports, especially to the United States.
The clean victory for Chavez leaves his critics with few options but to regroup before congressional elections next year and a presidential election in 2006.
But the victory also raises questions about where the firebrand leader will take his "Bolivarian revolution" -- a mix of nationalist ideas of Venezuelan liberation hero Simon Bolivar and socialist tenets of equality.
(Additional reporting by Silene Ramirez, Matthew Robinson and Pascal Fletcher in Venezuela and Saul Hudson in Washington)