- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

CARACAS, Venezuela — Under a hot sun, millions of Venezuelans waited yesterday up to nine hours to cast their vote in a referendum to oust populist President Hugo Chavez.

The first recall referendum in Venezuela’s history was aimed at putting a lid on years of often violent political unrest and came after a lengthy and complicated process of mass signings of petitions.

From slums to the middle-class neighborhoods of the capital, pro- and anti-Chavez citizens lined up in droves to exercise what they proudly called their constitutional right to vote, leading officials to keep polling places open up to six hours later than scheduled.

The first results were not expected until early today, election officials said. As the night dragged on, the prospect of a close vote raised fears of recounts and charges of vote-rigging by both sides.

Opposition leader Enrique Mendoza, a provincial governor likely to run if Mr. Chavez loses, urged followers last night to be patient and vote.

“We have waited years to win the referendum; we can wait a few hours more,” he said.

The heavy turnout among the country’s 14 million registered voters demonstrated the depths of the political passions in the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter.

“In Venezuela, so many people have never been seen for an election,” said Luis Figuera, a 64-year-old retired public accountant who started waiting in line at 6 a.m. at the Andres Bello school in the middle-class neighborhood of La Candelaria.

“Now, we want to recall [Mr. Chavez], even if we have to sleep here,” Mr. Figuera said.

At the Juan Pablo II apartment complex in the neighborhood of Montalban, sisters Majerla and Casilda Ramirez were numbers 794 and 795 in a line of at least 1,000. They were lucky, having been in line for only three hours, but still were forced to shade themselves from the fierce midday sun with hats and umbrellas.

“We are here because we want peace for all of the citizens,” said Casilda Ramirez, a Chavez supporter.

Despite the high tensions leading up to the historic vote, balloting was generally peaceful across the country. But a 28-year-old woman was fatally shot and 12 others injured when a gunman opened fire on people waiting to vote in a poor eastern Caracas neighborhood, emergency service officials said.

Polling booths initially were supposed to close at 6 p.m., but the National Elections Commission announced that polling booths would stay open until midnight.

“It’s taking longer for each voter than was expected, and the number of voters has been far beyond what was expected,” said former President Jimmy Carter, whose Atlanta-based Carter Center has dispatched dozens of observers for the vote.

Mr. Carter and former Organization of American States President Cesar Gaviria expressed satisfaction with the vote, even though a costly digital system to create a national voting register was abandoned during the day because it was taking too long.

The government and the opposition were warned not to issue early forecasts, but private estimates were flying throughout the day. The government and the opposition, a loose coalition of businessmen, politicians and labor leaders who have been trying to oust Mr. Chavez since a failed April 2002 coup, both claimed decisive victories.

Venezuelans either could vote “no” to allow Mr. Chavez to serve out the remainder of his six-year term, which began in 2000, or “yes” to recall him. For the president to be ousted, more must vote against him than the nearly 3.8 million who voted for him in the 2000 presidential elections and there also must be more “yes” votes than “no” votes.

If the recall passes, Mr. Chavez would step down and Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel would take over until an election is held within 30 days. Mr. Chavez has said he plans to run in the new election if he is ousted in the referendum.

The fiery president, who has irked the United States with his incendiary rhetoric, his authoritarian style and his close friendship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, cast his ballot at about midday in a western Caracas hillside slum and Chavez stronghold, where red banners announcing “No” waved from homes.

It is in neighborhoods such as these that the president has invested large amounts of money from the state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, in social projects known as “missions” that provide free health care and teach people to read.

“We are very happy,” Mr. Chavez said. “Today is a happy day. This is a people in peace giving an example to the rest of the world.”

As the sun rose on the Jose Gregorio Hernandez school, 70-year-old Hilda Gomez sat at the head of a line that already counted about 60. Mr. Chavez had urged his followers to come out as early as 5 a.m. to cast their ballots, and it seemed as if they heeded his call.

“I want to vote for my commander,” Mrs. Gomez announced, with the sounds of trumpets and music waking up the neighborhood in the background. “Never in my life has a president done so many good things.”

But not everybody in this heavily pro-Chavez neighborhood supported the president. Whispering so that her neighbors wouldn’t hear, Maria, who wouldn’t give her last name, said she would vote “Yes” to oust Mr. Chavez.

“This man is a second Fidel Castro,” she said, adding it was the first time in her life she felt motivated to vote. “There is hatred on the part of the Chavistas towards those who don’t agree with them.”

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