CARACAS, Venezuela — Voter turnout was reported heavy across Venezuela in Sunday’s presidential election in which leftist President Hugo Chavez is seeking a fourth term against challenger Henrique Capriles, a youthful center-right former governor who says the incumbent’s socialist experiment has failed.
After casting his vote at in a poor neighborhood in western Caracas, Chavez saluted supporters who were present, including Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu and Hollywood actor Danny Glover.
"We will respect the decision of the people, whether it's by 3 million votes or just one," Chavez said, expressing confidence in Venezuela's ballot-counting system, calling it "the best in the world."
Capriles voted in the affluent Mercedes zone of eastern Caracas and afterward said he too would respect the will of the electorate. "I'm very emotional and very happy," he said. "Something good is happening."
Support for the two candidates seemed to break down along demographic lines. It came as no surprise that backing for Capriles seemed almost unanimous in the middle- to upper-class Santa Rosa barrio in eastern Caracas, where many express a visceral dislike of Chavez and his “Bolivarean Revolution.”
“We have to recover our values, our culture, our liberty and our democracy,” said middle-school teacher Molly Malavé. “That’s why I voted for Capriles. I did it for my grandson. If Capriles loses, we have six more years of suffering and disintegration to look forward to.”
Said businessman Oswaldo Rojas, who also voted for Capriles: “This is a country with a lot of riches. The problem is the guy in power, President Chavez, doesn’t know how to manage them. Capriles would be a much better administrator.”
What did come as a surprise were signs that support for Chavez was wavering in the working-class San Juan barrio west of Caracas’ historic center. There, some residents were surprisingly vocal about their disenchantment with "El Commandante," as the incumbent likes to be called. In past elections, Chavez critics would have been hard to find there. Not on Sunday.
Computer salesman Jose Martinez said he had switched allegiance to Capriles because of Chavez's “14 years of promises that haven’t been kept.”
“I voted for change, for a better future, for better opportunity for my son,” Martinez said. “If Chavez repeats, a bad economic situation will only get worse.”
Housewife Yuba Hurtado said she too voted for Capriles. “I went for independence, for liberty, for a change,” Hurtado said, adding she has had enough of Chavez’s polarizing discourse. “I want a president who will act like a gentleman and not offend everyone all the time. We’re tired of this guy who does nothing but insult people and talk hatefully.”
Others like Paulina Marin, a retired medical technician, said Chavez’s socialism doesn’t fit her idea of government. “This isn’t Cuba, gosh almighty, it’s Venezuela.”
But Chavez supporters were still numerous, clad in red T-shirts and baseball caps. Farmer Juvenal Navarro, who raises sheep and goats in Charallave suburb outside of Caracas but who came to the capital to vote, said Chavez certainly will win.
“Why? Because there are more poor people than rich people, and all the poor people are for Chavez," Navarro said. “There are many abandoned children, old people who need housing and healthcare and they know Chavez will take care of them.”
— Chris Kraul and Mery Mogollon
Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, speaks with an electoral worker at a polling station before casting his ballot Sunday in Caracas during the presidential election. Chavez is running for reelection against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Credit: Fernando Llano / Associated Press.