3Curated News Edition
Submitted at 10/8/2012 12:15:23 AM
By Andrew Cawthorne andEyanir ChineaCARACAS| Mon Oct 8, 20121:15am EDT(Reuters) - Venezuela's socialistPresident Hugo Chavezcomfortably won re-election onSunday, quashing the opposition'sbest chance at unseating him in 14years and cementing himself as adominant figure in modern LatinAmerican history.A fist-pumping Chavez ledthrongs of supporters incelebration from the balcony of the presidential palace - justmonths after cancer treatment hadtaken him out of the public eyeand left him fending off rumors hewas dying.A new six-year term will extendhis rule of the OPEC memberstate to two decades, giving him achance to deepen his oil-revenue-fueled socialism while continuingto support left-wing allies in LatinAmerica, though a possiblerecurrence of cancer still hangsover him."Today we've shown thatVenezuela's democracy is one of the best democracies in the world,and we will continue to show it,"the 58-year-old Chavez shouted,dressed in a signature red shirtand waving a replica sword of independence hero SimonBolivar.Crowds roared, and the smoke of fireworks clouded the air.Chavez took 54.42 percent of thevote, with 90 percent of theballots counted, compared with44.97 percent for youngopposition candidate HenriqueCapriles.Since taking power in 1999, theflamboyant former soldier hasbecome a global flag bearer of "anti-imperialism," gleefullybaiting the U.S. government whilebefriending leaders from Iran toBelarus whom the West viewswith suspicion.At home, casting himself as anheir to independence hero SimonBolivar, Chavez has pouredbillions of dollars in oil revenuesinto anti-poverty programs, andskillfully used his humble rootsand folksy oratory to build a closeconnection with the masses."Chavez is my joy. He willcontinue protecting the poor anddefenseless," said GladysMontijo, 54, a teacher.Highlighting relief among LatinAmerican allies, ArgentinePresident Cristina Fernandezwrote via Twitter: "Your victoryis our victory! And the victory of South America and theCaribbean!"Opposition leaders appearedcrushed by the loss, with someCapriles supporters bursting intotears at his campaign headquartersas the news sank in.The youthful state governor puton a brave face, celebrating his"house-by-house" campaign as thestart of a long road to changingthe direction of the country."I hope a political movement thathas been in power for 14 yearsunderstands that almost half thecountry does not agree with it," asubdued and tired-lookingCapriles told crestfallensupporters.Chavez's victory wasconsiderably slimmer than his winof 25 percentage points in 2006,reflecting anger at his failure tofix basic problems such as crime,blackouts and corruption.Record turnout of 80 percent onSunday will boost Chavez'sdemocratic credentials, thoughcritics said his use of stateresources made a mockery of fairness during the campaign.WHAT NEXT?After heavy campaign spending,South America's biggest oilexporter faces growing pressure todevalue its currency in 2013,likely spurring inflation that hasbeen a top complaint of Chavezsympathizers.In the past, Chavez has takenadvantage of election wins topress forward with radicalreforms. His often-capriciousnationalizations may now turn tosome untouched corners of Venezuela's banking, food andhealth industries.Cancer, though, could changethat.The constitution says if anincumbent steps down in the firstfour years of a six-year term, anew vote would be called. Undersuch a scenario, Capriles oranother opposition candidatewould have another crack atpower.During a year's treatment startingin mid-2011, Chavez enduredthree operations for two canceroustumors, and chemotherapy thatleft him bald, exhausted andfearing death at his lowest point.He wrongly declared himself cured once, and repeated that inJuly after a recurrence, promptingskepticism from doctors who saythat at least two years must passbefore a cancer patient can begiven a clean bill of health.Chavez has looked bloated and attimes exhausted in recent months,but he ran a surprisingly energeticend to his campaign, evenmanaging to dance, sing andstrum a guitar at rallies.Any sign of a downturn in hishealth in the future would stoke asuccession debate in the rulingSocialist Party.Congress head Diosdado Cabello,Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduroand Vice President Elias Jaua alllook well-placed for a potentialpush for leadership.But none of Chavez's allies comeanywhere near his popularity, soif there were to be anotherelection, Capriles could be afavorite after a widely praisedcampaign that has made him well-known across the nation of 29million people.Though the 40-year-old Caprilesis the once-rudderless opposition'sbest leader of the Chavez era, hisposition is not guaranteed. Thereare other young political figures -including Zulia state governorPablo Perez and telegenic formerCaracas district mayor LeopoldoLopez - waiting in the wings.STATE ELECTIONS AHEADNow, Capriles and other leadersof the Democratic Unity coalitionmust dust themselves off andprepare for state governorshipelections in December, when theywill hope at least to increase theopposition's influence at the locallevel.Chavez's new six-year termbegins on January 10.His latest election win continuesa remarkable story that beganwith his birth on July 28, 1954 ina mud hut belonging to hisgrandmother in the rural village of Sabaneta.
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