- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2000

CARACAS, Venezuela Venezuelans turned out under a bright tropical sun in unexpectedly heavy numbers yesterday to elect left-leaning President Hugo Chavez to a fresh six-year term.

With 77 percent of the votes counted, 59 percent went to Mr. Chavez and 37 percent went to his nearest challenger, former Zulia state Gov. Francisco Arias Cardenas.

The election consolidated Latin America's second leftist regime after Cuba.

The results were revealed late yesterday by the National Electoral Council hours after they had been scheduled to be released. Celebrations broke out in the capital of Caracas, with fireworks and revelers in the streets.

Earlier in the day, as Mr. Chavez cast his ballot in a Caracas suburb shortly after voting opened, he said: "A new republic is being born."

His closest rival was former state Gov. Francisco Arias, who helped Mr. Chavez lead a failed 1992 coup attempt but who broke away from the president this year. A third candidate, former Caracas Mayor Claudio Fermin, ran a distant third. About 12 million Venezuelans were eligible to vote.

In addition to the presidency, voters elected 165 members of the new unicameral National Assembly, 23 governors and state legislatures and, for the first time, a mayor of the greater Caracas area.

Mr. Chavez, 46, a charismatic populist, said the elections will give a major impetus to his "social revolution" in this crisis-ridden South American nation, asked voters to look past sharp rises in crime and unemployment.

"Hugo, I am sure that nothing and no one can stop you now," Cuban President Fidel Castro told Mr. Chavez in a chummy telephone conversation Saturday as Venezuelan journalists in Cuba interviewed the Cuban leader for live television.

Coming 18 months into Mr. Chavez's mandate, the broadest elections in Venezuelan history were held to "re-legitimize" all main public posts under a new constitution approved in a December referendum.

But 465 of the 6,998 vote-counting machines refused to count ballots, resulting in long lines that continued until long after the polls closed. At midday, the National Electoral Council had postponed the closing time from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. to compensate for the machine malfunctions and heavy turnout.

By law, the polls must remain open until everyone in line has voted.

The elections, originally scheduled for May 28, were postponed because of computer difficulties with the vote tallying.

This is the fifth time Venezuelans have trooped to the polls in 19 months and for the first time, active-duty military personnel were allowed to vote. The commanders of the army and navy were shown voting on national television yesterday morning.

Former President Jimmy Carter, head of a 48-member delegation of observers from the Atlanta-based Carter Center, appeared at a voting station when it opened at 6 a.m. and monitored the process throughout the day.

Many voting stations opened late, some as late as 9:30 a.m., according to the national electoral commission and the Organization of American States, which monitored the voting.

There were also complaints about ballots either not arriving at some stations or ballots being too thick to pass through the vote-counting machines, according to the election commission.

Tempers ran short at two Caracas-area polling places, where voters waited for hours under a hot tropical sun or inside sweltering schoolrooms. But few seemed willing to surrender their right to vote.

"I've been waiting to vote for four hours," said Isabel de Contreras, a retired telephone company worker, in a line of about 300 people at the Fermin Toro Lyceum in downtown Caracas, where a machine was malfunctioning.

Asked if the wait was worth it, however, she said, "Well, sure, I want my candidate to win." Pressed as to which candidate that was, she said in mock seriousness, "Oh, that's a secret."

At the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe High School in the upscale Caracas section of Sabana Grande, at least 300 voters were waiting their turn at 3:30 p.m.

"I've waited so long because I wanted to vote against Chavez," said Ana Sanchez, 35, a purchasing agent for a fast-food company, who said she voted for Mr. Fermin. "I don't like military people never."

Just two blocks away, however, Juan Domingo Vargas, a 63-year-old waiter at a sidewalk cafe, unabashedly wrote down orders with a Hugo Chavez campaign pen. He said he had waited only 30 minutes to vote at 10:15 a.m.

"He's a good man, and he has a good head," Mr. Vargas said of Mr. Chavez. "He thinks about Venezuela. He has provided education and medicine for the children."

Mr. Chavez has support among the poor majority of Venezuela's 23 million people who have put their faith in his "social revolution." However, the bulk of the middle and upper classes, frightened by Mr. Chavez's attacks on business and his coziness with Cuba, support Mr. Arias.

The president's movement is expected to win at least a simple majority in the legislature. But Mr. Chavez may fall short of the two-thirds needed to rubber-stamp presidential appointments and proposed laws. And the governorships of nearly half of the country's 23 states will likely go to the opposition.

For the first time in memory, the Venezuelan economy has fallen into recession during an oil boom: The gross domestic product shrank by 7 percent last year despite a quadrupling of petroleum prices.

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