by Humberto Marquez
(IPS) CARACAS -- Millions of Venezuelans stood in line Sunday from the early hours of the morning to vote in the recall referendum that was to decide whether President Hugo Chavez would complete his term or be removed from office.
Chavez claimed victory early Monday morning, and his U.S.-backed opposition immediately challenged the results.
Chavez won with 58 percent, or nearly 5 million votes. The opposition drew 42 percent of the vote, or less than 3.6 million.
Nobel Peace laureate and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, one of the international observers, said the Carter Center had monitored nearly 50 elections around the world and that he had never before seen such a turnout. It is believed that 8.5 million of Venezuela's 14 million registered voters went to the polls.
Chavez voted at noon in a local high school in the "23 de Enero" working class neighborhood, a traditional bastion of the left in western Caracas, where some 700 people were queueing up and several thousand others crowded around to cheer the president.
"Uh, Ah, Chavez no se va!" (Ooh, Ah, Chavez Isn't Leaving!) the crowd chanted as the president's motorcade pulled up in front of the school. Many were dressed in red, the trademark color of the president's supporters.
"I am happy, because our people en masse, democratically and in peace, are setting an example for the world," Chavez told reporters after casting his ballot.
Chavez embraced leftist Colombian politician Antonio Navarro Wolf, one of the Latin American leaders serving as election observers.
"We will accept any result announced by the National Electoral Council, and I invite the opposition to do the same," he declared.
The Democratic Coordinator opposition coalition has refused to give the election authorities a blank check, because it considers the Electoral Council biased towards the president.
But the main opposition leader, Enrique Mendoza, governor of the state of Miranda, which encompasses the east side of Caracas, said shortly before noon that "the process is functioning perfectly and there have merely been a few delays caused by the fingerprint identification machines."
Under the new automated voting system, voters are identified by their thumbprints before they use the touch screens to cast their ballots, to prevent people from voting twice.
Chavez himself suffered a delay when the system failed to identify him immediately and another fingerprint identification machine had to be used.
The Electoral Council was taking steps to overcome the problems, and the head of the Council, Jorge Rodríguez, announced that the polls would stay open and that all voters standing in line would be allowed to cast their ballots.
Many voters complained that they had to stand in line for up to five hours. But special queues were formed for the elderly and disabled, who were given preference.
"I think that when the sun comes up, we'll still be waiting here. Just look at the line, it goes all the way around the block," Yolanda de Guerra, a nurse standing roughly at the halfway point in the queue outside the Jesus Obrero vocational institute in Catia, a poor neighborhood, told IPS.
Seeing that reporters were present, a group of young people standing in line chanted "se va, se va, se vaaa" (he's going, he's going, he's go-oo-ing).
But others, like Luis Osorio, said "we came here to vote for my comandante." Chavez, a retired paratrooper officer who led a failed coup d'etat in 1992, is frequently referred to as "my comandante" by his followers.
The president ruled out the possibility of violence or disturbances, and said that whoever loses, "I tell them that the most important thing is the country, democracy and for the game to continue."
He also refuted one of the rumors spread by members of the opposition: that at the last minute, he had replaced Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel, a veteran leftist politician. In Venezuela, the vice-president is appointed by the president.
Rangel "is a model and symbol of loyalty, and he will remain vice-president," said Chavez.
To remove Chavez, the opposition needed more than the 3.8 million votes with which he was elected in 2000.
Chavez will now serve out his term until January 2007, and will be able to run for re-election.
Justo Cadenas, a middle-aged mechanic standing in line outside the 23 de Enero school where the president voted, said "Chavez has enough votes to win and to give to the opposition as well. I know the faces of my neighbors and I don't see anyone here who would vote against him," he told IPS.
But earlier, in Santa Monica, a middle-class neighborhood in southern Caracas, Carolina Rivero, a 19-year-old marketing student sitting on a folding chair as she waited in a long line, had commented to IPS that "this is the first time I've ever voted, and this sun is really strong, but any sacrifice is worth it to get rid of Chavez."
The long wait was not the only problem voters suffered.
María Auxiliadora Leiria, who looks far older than her 65 years, got up early -- like many Venezuelans -- to stand in line and vote for her "Presidente".
But 15 hours later, the frail elderly woman, with only a few teeth left, found herself in the midst of an improvised demonstration outside the National Electoral Council.
Unfolding a crumpled paper that clearly showed that she was registered, and where she was to vote, she said that once she reached the end of the line at the voting station, she had been told that her name was not on the list.
"Tell them to do something, because it's getting late," she told IPS desperately, pointing to the Electoral Council windows, while a functionary took down the information provided by frustrated voters.
They suspect that they were removed from the voting station lists on purpose. "It's not a coincidence that all of those who are here are on the same side," said Nora Salazar, 46, a "Chavista".
But across the city, in the most prosperous neighborhoods, it seemed the "yes" anti-Chavez vote was unanimous, and no one seemed to have any doubts that the delays and slow pace of the voting process were part of a Machiavellian plan by the government to keep its hold on power.
Most of the latest opinion polls predicted that a majority would vote in favor of the president.
The opposition, meanwhile, said it was confident that public employees and people living in predominantly pro-Chavez neighborhoods who professed to be his supporters would actually vote against him in the referendum, and that the president would be removed thanks to this "hidden vote".
"The demonstration of civic spirit that the Venezuelan people are giving is impressive. The country is finally finding what it was seeking: an electoral solution to the political conflicts," said Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria.
Carter and Gaviria, the heads of the international missions of election observers sent by the Carter Centre and OAS, respectively, have urged both sides to respect the final outcome announced by the election authorities.
The Electoral Council and Supreme Court banned exit polls and the release of any projection before the election authorities issue their first report.
August 17, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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