Latin American governments congratulate Chavez win in Venezuela

MEXICO CITY -- Governments in Latin America quickly congratulated Hugo Chavez on his reelection Sunday as president of Venezuela, a sign of his convincing win over strong opposition challenger Henrique Capriles.

With Chavez's victory, Venezuela's socialist government is set to remain in power at least through 2019 and maintain its position as a regional leader for leftist governments that are Bolivarian ideological allies or depend on Venezuela's oil and subsidies.

The congratulations were effusive and personally directed at the president who has been in office for more than 13 years, making Chavez, 58, the longest-serving leader in Latin America.

"Your decisive victory assures the continuation of the struggle for the genuine integration of Our America," said Cuban President Raul Castro, in a statement released by the communist country's embassy in Mexico City.

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Venezuela President Hugo Chavez wins reelection, officials say


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.


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Awakened in Venezuela capital by reveille, voters head for polls

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Voter turnout heavy in Venezuela; Chavez vows to respect results

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.”

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Awakened in Venezuela capital by reveille, voters head for polls

Venezuela election
CARACAS, Venezuela — As President Hugo Chavez promised, many residents of Venezuela's capital awoke early Sunday to the sounds of "El Toque de Diana," a recorded version of military reveille blaring over loudspeakers. It was literally a wake-up call to vote in Sunday’s presidential election.

In his closing campaign rally Thursday, Chavez, a former army colonel, said he wanted to roust Venezuelans to vote early so that his “irreversible” victory would be plain by midday. Most pollsters, however, expect an exceedingly tight vote and that the ballot count could extend into tonight’s wee hours. Although Chavez leads in most polls, some indicate challenger Henrique Capriles could eke out a victory.

In any case, residents in Caracas responded in droves; by 8 a.m., lines a half-mile long or longer were snaking around many of the capital’s polling places, a reflection of the significance of the election in this highly polarized country.

The nation's 19-million eligible voters face a stark choice. If Chavez is reelected to a fourth term, Venezuela will continue along the socialist path he has charted. The redistribution of the country’s oil wealth, housing, ranches and farmland will continue and more private enterprises almost certainly will be nationalized.

If Capriles wins, the takeovers will stop and private property will be more respected, although the former Miranda state governor has promised to retain Chavez’s social welfare programs called Missions, even seeking to make them more efficient.

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As 'Chavismo' sputters, a charismatic challenger woos Venezuelans

Henrique Capriles has united and mobilized opposition forces
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has loomed larger than life over his oil-rich country for nearly 14 years, doling out healthcare and houses and university admissions to supporters of his “Bolivarian Revolution” aimed at creating history’s first affluent socialist state.

A barrel-chested former paratrooper who has tapped Venezuela's oil revenues to court a loyal following among the country’s poor, Chavez has handily outpolled disorganized opponents in past elections and harnessed people power to defeat a 2001 coup d’etat and win a recall vote three years later.

GlobalFocusBut much of the revolutionary fire that stirred the masses into a political phenomenon known as Chavismo has gone out of the cancer-stricken president. For the first time since his 1998 election victory, he faces a viable competitor with a message of unity and a track record of efficient management as governor of the state that surrounds Caracas.

Few neutral observers are yet convinced that Chavez will fall to Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles in Sunday’s presidential election. They are as dubious of polls showing the 40-year-old challenger with a slight edge as they are of the Chavez-commissioned surveys depicting the incumbent at least 10 percentage points ahead. 

Still, there is a solidifying impression among political analysts that Chavez's "missions" to eradicate illiteracy, improve healthcare, provide government jobs and build housing for the homeless have benefited too few for the vast sums squandered on the programs. A Reuters news agency report this week on its investigation into the opaque ledgers of a massive slush fund under Chavez's control identified more than $100 billion in off-budget spending over the last seven years.

While the social programs are popular and have made dents in poverty and illiteracy, Venezuelans are tiring of unfulfilled promises after 14 years, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. He believes that Chavez "has run his course."

Violent crime has skyrocketed -- including at least two fatal shootings of Capriles supporters at campaign events this week. Infrastructure is crumbling, as seen in deadly refinery explosions this summer. Power shortages afflict much of the country, and "there is a sense that Chavez's rhetoric has lost its magic," Shifter said.

A cult of personality enveloped Chavez through most of his presidency, with his visage ubiquitous on posters and billboards. Broadcast media have been obliged to carry every one of his 2,300 speeches. If aired end to end 24/7, they would run for 72 days, according to the calculations of two prominent Latin American statesmen in a report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The report, by career Chilean diplomat Genaro Arriagada and former Mexican Federal Electoral Institute chief Jose Woldenberg, also noted that Venezuela’s high-tech balloting machines that identify voters by fingerprint are suspected by a third of the population -– and a majority of Chavez supporters -- of creating a record of how they voted, despite official demonstrations to the contrary.

Voters in line for new housing or other government perqs fear they'll be bumped from the waiting lists if they are found to have voted for the opposition, said Charles Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and now president of the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla.

Hugo Chavez campaigning Tuesday"What is true is not as important as what people think is true," Shapiro said of voters' enduring  suspicions that their votes won't be secret.

Opinion polls in Venezuela are a poor gauge of voter intentions, said Shapiro, who wouldn't hazard a guess as to whether an end to the Chavez era might be on the horizon.

"What I do know is that Capriles has run a terrific campaign. Chavez has been president for 14 years, and in any country a certain weariness sets in," Shapiro said. "While Chavez is a very good campaigner, he clearly is not as vigorous as in past campaigns."

Chavez, 58, has had three cancer operations in Cuba in 15 months and often has been absent, uncharacteristically, from the public spotlight.

The 40-year-old Capriles, by contrast, has projected a dynamic image, plunging headlong into Chavista territory to assure the poor that as president he would maintain popular social programs but run them better.

"Capriles has been extremely smart in his campaign, in a way that would suggest there's not going to be a period of vengeance against Chavez supporters in the government," Shifter said. "The mistake the opposition has made in the past is saying that everything Chavez has done is bad."

It remains to be seen whether the young governor's message is strong enough to overcome the considerable powers of incumbency, with Chavez in control of the airwaves and the oil treasure chest, Shifter said. There are also concerns about whether a Capriles victory would be respected by Chavez loyalists on the electoral council, in the courts and among the armed forces.

"Capriles is the new generation," whether he wins this time or not, Shifter said. "People are obviously responding to his message and giving him a serious look."


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Photo: Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, at a campaign rally on Monday, has united the country's scattered opposition forces to confront President Hugo Chavez with the first serious challenge of his 14-year tenure in Miraflores Palace. Credit: Leo Ramirez / AFP/GettyImages

Insert: President Hugo Chavez, at a campaign rally in Yaracui state on Tuesday, still draws enthusiastic crowds but has been less in the public spotlight this election year because of long absences for cancer treatment in Cuba. Credit: Juan Barreto / AFP/GettyImages

In Venezuela, Chavez foe demands justice in killing of two followers

Venezuela presidential candidate Henrique Capriles

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Presidential challenger Henrique Capriles on Monday lamented the killing of two of his followers during a weekend rally in the western state of Barinas and said the attack was a symptom of rising violence by followers of President Hugo Chavez against his campaign.

“Yesterday a bottle of paint hit me in the face. If this had happened to the other side, we would now be having an assassination investigation,” Capriles said at a news conference in Caracas, where he discussed Saturday’s attack on his supporters. He called on the government to “let people express themselves peacefully.”

Voters go to the polls Sunday to choose between Capriles and Chavez, who has been in office since February 1999 and is seeking another six-year term. Although most polls have Chavez in the lead, Capriles has narrowed the gap. Capriles insists he will win by 1 million votes.

He demanded an investigation into the shooting deaths of his supporters and urged that the campaign be peaceful. “The election wil be won by votes, not violence or insults,” he said.

One of the victims, Jackson Valero, was the son of Ramon "Chucho" Valero, a former opposition candidate for mayor of Bolivar in Barinas state. The shootings occurred after alleged Chavez followers tried to block a Capriles campaign parade.

Capriles wrapped up the Caracas portion of his campaign with a massive rally Sunday that attracted tens of thousands. As his campaign has gathered strength and opinion polls have shown him narrowing Chavez's lead, attacks by Chavez supporters have increased in the streets as well as over the airwaves.

During a Sunday night program on state-controlled television, the host played what he said was a wiretapped recording of a telephone conversation of Capriles’ father allegedly discussing an illegal campaign contribution.

Capriles on Monday denied any such contribution had been encouraged or accepted, and said, “The incredible thing is that they transmitted an illegal recording over a public channel,” Capriles said.

The incumbent “has distanced himself from the process of change," Capriles said. "He’s become sick with power.”

Capriles also told reporters he will announce his vice presidential running mate Thursday. Rumors point to Lara Gov. Henry Falcon, a former Chavez supporter and now opposition leader. Capriles also said he has selected an unidentified and currently serving armed forces general to be his defense minister if he is victorious.


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Photo: Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, center, greets supporters during a campaign rally in Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas state, Monday. Credit: Leo Ramirez / AFP

39 killed in huge Venezuela oil refinery fire; gas leak suspected


This post has been updated. See note at bottom for details.

CARACAS, Venezuela -- An early morning explosion and fire at Venezuela's largest refinery killed at least 39 people Saturday and left the nation’s most important source for auto and airline fuel out of commission.

Giant flames and columns of smoke continued to billow from the Amuay refinery, located 200 miles west of Caracas, the capital, into the afternoon. 
The disaster occured  at a crucial moment in Venezuela’s presidential campaign in advance of its Oct. 7 election, with the efficiency of President Hugo Chavez’s government  a major campaign issue. State-owned oil company PDVSA is the owner and operator of the refinery.

A gas leak apparently caused the accident, which destroyed or damaged 11 tanks where propane gas, crude oil, naphtha and other chemicals were being stored. The refinery processes half of Venezuela’s fuel production.
It was too soon Saturday to say what impact the fire could have on U.S. gasoline prices. On average, Amuay exports about 360,000 barrels per day of refined gasoline, mostly unleaded fuels, to the eastern U.S.  Thus, U.S. motorists, who buy more than half of the complex’s average production of 645,000 barrels per day, could pay higher prices if the refinery remains out of commission.
The dead included 17 national guardsmen who were assigned to protect the sprawling refinery complex, one of the largest in the world. A 10-year old boy who lived nearby was also among the victims. At least 86 were injured with burn injuries. Social networks, however, reported that many more were still unaccounted for.

With the Amuay fire raging in the background, Venezuelan Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva went on TV in the afternoon to offer condolences to family members of the guardsmen killed in the disaster. 
Energy Minster Rafael Ramirez, who also heads PDVSA, told reporters at the disaster site Saturday morning that some of the fires near the tanks were under control and that there were sufficient  inventories of fuel to ensure internal supplies and exports for 10 days.

UPDATE, 7:00 p.m., Aug. 25: The number of people who died was raised from 26 to 39.


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Photo: Firefighters and rescue teams work at the Amuay oil refinery in Punto Fijo, Venezuela, on Saturday. Credit: Diario EL Amanecer/Associated Press

Rights group: Chavez government intimidates foes in Venezuela


MEXICO CITY -- The Venezuelan government under President Hugo Chavez has steadily concentrated its power, enabling it to "intimidate, censor, and prosecute" critics and perceived enemies, a new report says.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch says in an extensive report released Tuesday that personal liberties under the  Chavez government have continued to deteriorate. In his 13 years in office, Chavez has stacked the legislature and supreme court with supporters whose loyalty has removed checks and balances on his own executive power, the report say.

"For judges, journalists, broadcasters and human rights defenders in particular, the government’s actions have sent a clear message: The president and his followers are willing and able to punish people who challenge or obstruct their political aims," the 133-page report says.

Human Rights Watch released a similarly scathing report in 2008; in response, the Chavez government detained and expelled the group's representatives in Venezuela. The human rights situation is even more precarious today, the group said.

Chavez, who has been battling cancer, is campaigning for another term in an election scheduled for October.


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Photo: Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cheer Saturday as he arrives at a campaign rally in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Credit: Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press





Venezuela's Globovision pays $2.1 million fine to stay on air

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Globovision TV, a frequent critic of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, bowed to government pressure and said Friday that it will pay a contested $2.1-million fine the day after the penalty was upheld by the Supreme Court and a government official threatened to close down the station.

Calling the fine “unjust and disproportionate,” Globovision Executive Vice President Carlos Zuloaga said the broadcaster’s board of directors decided to pay under protest. The fine was levied last year for what the government described as biased coverage of prison riots that “encouraged illegality.”

Still uncertain was whether the station will have to pay late penalties and interest that could amount to about triple the original fine.

Press freedom advocates have criticized the Chavez government for the fine, saying it’s the latest example of attempts to squelch dissent. In 2007, the government denied the renewal of the broadcast license of another opposition channel, RCTV, provoking widespread student protests that later that year contributed to the defeat of a referendum, Chavez's only electoral loss since he took office in early 1999.

Communication and Information Minister Andres Izarra told reporters Thursday at an event tied to next week’s official kickoff of the presidential election campaign that the Globovision case showed the rule of law prevailed in Venezuela.

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Energy deals boost Colombia-Venezuela ties despite border violence

Colombia venezuela
BOGOTA, Colombia, and CARACAS, Venezuela -- Notwithstanding a border attack this week by leftist rebels hiding in Venezuela that left 12 Colombian soldiers dead, relations between the neighboring nations have improved steadily in recent months, as evidenced by energy deals including a proposed $8-billion pipeline as well as a crackdown on gasoline smuggling.

Fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, apparently fled back to Venezuela after the bloody ambush  Monday, prompting a promise from President Hugo Chavez to send three army battalions to the Perija Mountains area to drive the rebels from their sparsely populated refuge.

“We are active on the border ... and we will patrol by air and land,” Chavez said during a televised meeting of ministers, his first public appearance since returning from medical treatment in Cuba two weeks ago. “We are not going to permit this and as we’ve said a million times, all we want is peace for Colombia.”

Chavez’s declaration came as Colombian Mining and Energy Minister Mauricio Cardenas said that Venezuela had agreed to expand exports of discount gasoline to several Colombian border states. The aim is to frustrate a cross-border gas smuggling racket controlled by mafias and terrorist groups, Cardenas said.

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