CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez apparently won reelection by a convincing margin Sunday, with allegiance among poor voters to his socialist revolution trumping dissatisfaction with a flaccid economy, rising crime and an increasingly polarized society.
With 90% of votes counted, the National Electoral Council said Chavez, a 58-year old former army colonel, won 54.4% of the vote compared with challenger Henrique Capriles’ 44.9%. Turnout was estimated as high as 80% of eligible voters and there were few reports of violence.
Chavez sent a message of gratitude on Twitter: “Thanks to my God and to everyone.”
Capriles addressed supporters shortly after the electoral council’s announcement to recognize his defeat and congratulate Chavez.
“To know how to win, you have to know how to lose. What the people say is sacred,” Capriles said. “I want to thank 6 million Venezuelans for their confidence.... I have learned a lot in the past six months.”
The victory means that Chavez would serve until February 2019, making him the hemisphere’s longest-serving leader, if his health holds up. The burly socialist was diagnosed with abdominal cancer in June 2011 and has undergone three surgeries in Cuba and several rounds of chemotherapy.
In office since February 1999, Chavez has in many ways transformed Venezuelan society, channeling the nation's torrent of oil dollars into social welfare projects called Missions that deliver free medical care, housing, education and cut-rate groceries to the nation’s poor.
But he also has dramatically polarized Venezuelan society with government takeovers of ranches, farms and businesses, and by characterizing political opponents in insulting terms. Chavez was briefly toppled by a coup d’etat in 2002 for which he blames the “squalid ones,” meaning the rich and middle class.
-- Chris Kraul and Mery Mogollon