- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela — A barrage of fireworks rattled windows last night in this expectant city as election officials announced that President Hugo Chavez, the oil-funded socialist revolutionary who has vilified the Bush administration, won a landslide victory over his conservative opponent.

The first-round preliminary results showed Mr. Chavez with 61.3 percent of the vote and Manuel Rosales with 38.4 percent.

The news erupted through a city grown tense in recent weeks.

Within minutes of the announcement, Mr. Chavez was addressing a rain-soaked crowd of screaming supporters in his trademark red shirt — a symbol of his socialist revolution.

Standing on the balcony of the presidential palace, he led the crowd in song, declaring the historic election a “victory for the future” and at times chanting “justice, justice, justice.”

A loss by Mr. Rosales, a conservative who unified a fragmented opposition, hands Mr. Chavez six more years to guide the world’s fifth-largest oil producer down a socialist path seen by many as a line against waning U.S. influence in Latin America.

Since coming to power in 1998, Mr. Chavez has earned a near iconic status among Venezuela’s poor.

Mr. Chavez’s party controls Venezuela’s legislature and judiciary.

Flush with oil money and seemingly impervious to domestic political challenge, he has publicly called President Bush “the devil” and frequently lambasted U.S. foreign and economic policy.

Meanwhile, he has sought oil, trade and military ties with nations such as Iran, Russia and China.

Voting tables that had no voters waiting in line were officially closed at 4 p.m. as a steady rain settled over Caracas, the capital.

But opposition leaders complained that Venezuelan troops loyal to Mr. Chavez had in some cases intervened to keep voting booths opened after the official closing time.

Enrique Marquez, a Rosales campaign official, called on the military to cease interfering and “respect the law.”

Officials at Venezuela’s National Election Council (CNE), had released no results by press time though recent polls gave Mr. Chavez a comfortable lead over Mr. Rosales.

Other polls showed Mr. Rosales narrowing that lead in recent days.

Voting tables that had no voters waiting in line were officially closed at 4 p.m. as a steady rain settled over Caracas, the capital.

Soon afterward, however, opposition figures appeared on television accusing army officials in Caracas and the state of Sucre of forcing some voting centers to reopen.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Rosales had asked the CNE to examine reported voting-machine malfunctions at some stations located in areas heavily populated by his supporters.

But Mr. Chavez dismissed the claims as “excuses” in a subsequent press conference.

“The information I have is that the process is moving along normally,” the former military officer said before driving himself from a Caracas polling station in a red Volkswagen that was mobbed by his supporters.

Election officials later assured the public that no irregularities had been found.

In Caracas, voters awakened by pre-dawn fireworks lined up for city blocks to pass their judgment on Mr. Chavez’s socialist platform, which blends nationalist and militarist rhetoric with oil-fueled social spending.

“I will vote for my commandant Hugo Frias Chavez,” said Jordi Romero, a 21-year-old security guard. “He has fixed our streets, built clinics and given the poor houses to live in.”

But Manuel, a 30-year-old taxi driver and evangelical Christian who did not want to give his last name, said while he supports Mr. Chavez’s social efforts, he fears the president will restrict freedom.

“I am scared that the police will have too much power and that he will restrict the church,” he said.

Opposition leaders have criticized Mr. Chavez for his lavish foreign spending and for installing what they say is a Cuban-style dictatorship here. Mr. Chavez has cast his opponent as being a puppet of U.S. interests.

He is the region’s staunchest critic of Mr. Bush and U.S. foreign and trade policies. But his rhetoric belies strong trade ties with the United States, especially petroleum sales made through the Venezuelan-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp., based in Texas.

Recent elections in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador have brought leftist allies of Mr. Chavez to power. And some analysts say a victory would secure his place as the anchor of a regional alternative to the United States and its regional allies, such as Colombia.

David Dent, a Towson State University political scientist, said an alliance between Mr. Chavez and incoming president Rafael Correa in Ecuador could signal “a Bolivarian effort to zero in on Colombia for a trifecta in northern South America.”

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