CARACAS, Venezuela – Plagued by long lines and some confusion, millions of Venezuelans went to the polls Sunday to decide whether populist President Hugo Chavez would remain in power or his self-described revolution would be turned back.

A record turnout combined with a troublesome new electronic voting system forced voters to wait up to 11 hours to cast their ballots and forced officials to keep polling stations open until midnight.

By late Sunday evening it was unclear whether the opposition secured enough votes to oust Chavez, a charismatic former army paratrooper whose five-year presidency has been characterized by sweeping internal changes and prickly relations with the United States.

There were no reports of fraud or widespread violence, a concern for the scores of international observers who have descended on this nation of 26 million people, who have been wracked by years of strikes and bloody demonstrations.

“Everything is going very well,” said former President Jimmy Carter, who was helping to monitor the vote.

In the only serious incident, a woman was killed and 13 other people were injured, including two seriously, when gunmen opened fire on a polling station on the outskirts of Caracas, according to Rodolfo Briceno, the city’s fire chief.

Election officials had hoped to release results several hours after polls were scheduled to close at 4 p.m. Sunday. But, with the delays, the official results may not be known until at least Monday in a historic vote whose margin is expected to be razor thin.

To remove Chavez, the opposition must get more than the 3.76 million votes the president received in winning the 2000 presidential election, and also have more votes than supporters of Chavez.

An opposition victory would force Chavez, whose term ends in late 2006, to immediately hand over power to Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel and new presidential elections would be held within 30 days.

Despite vilifying his opponents as “devils,” Chavez has vowed to respect the results of the referendum and, should he lose, immediately run again.

But the Venezuelan Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether Chavez is eligible to stand for office.

“We are waiting calmly and are preparing mentally, and with a lot of joy, to accept the result, no matter what the result will be,” Chavez said Sunday morning after casting his ballot.

Enrique Mendoza, a top opposition leader, also urged calm late Sunday evening and told supporters to continue waiting patiently to cast their votes.

Experts warn that no matter who wins the referendum the nation remains deeply divided. They urged its leaders to begin talks aimed at reducing the economic and political divisions that have been exacerbated during Chavez’s presidency.

U.S. officials are closely watching the outcome of the vote, which could have a major impact on oil prices if either side challenges the results and sparks violence.

Venezula is the world’s 5th-largest oil exporter and supplies about 14 percent of United States’ petroleum products.

Rafael Ramirez, minister of energy and mines, has warned that workers at Petroleos de Venezuela, the giant state-owned oil company, would not accept a Chavez defeat and could go on strike. Experts say such a move would likely send already record oil prices higher.

The son of a schoolteacher, Chavez was thrust into prominence in 1992 after leading a failed coup and won the presidency in a landslide six years later.

After changing the constitution, Chavez won re-election in 2000 and two years later survived a short-lived, bloody coup.

Since then, Venezuela has been increasingly polarized between those who see the 50-year-old president as a hero of the poor and those who describe him as a dangerous and inept demagogue.

With government coffers flush with oil revenues, Chavez has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent months on a literacy campaign, state markets that sell subsidized food, scholarships to those finishing high school and other social programs.

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“He’s done so many good things for the country,” said Obregon Jairo, a 39-year-old construction worker waiting in line to vote in a poor neighborhood in western Caracas. “I’m sure he is going to win.”

A father of two children, Jairo said he often shops at the state-subsidized markets and has just enrolled in the program that assists adults in earning high school diplomas.

He is concerned that an opposition victory would end such programs.

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But Chavez also has made many enemies with his talk of class warfare, his alliance with Cuban President Fidel Castro and his effort to pack the Supreme Court and other state institutions with political supporters.

Unemployment and poverty also have increased in recent years – something that appears to have cut into Chavez’s support even among the poor.

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“Before there was work and now there is no work,” said Marisol Afajardo, a 52-year-old retiree, who once supported Chavez. “The country needs a change.”

Across town, in upscale eastern Caracas, the anti-Chavez sentiment is even more pronounced.

“Chavez is crazy,” said Jerry Gregg, a 43-year-old hotel owner. “We don’t believe in revolution. We are a democratic country.”

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One thing most Venezuelans had in common Sunday was long lines and frustrating delays at the voting booth.

With the stakes so high, voters began arriving at 3 a.m. outside schools and other polling places. In El Rosal, a crowd of voters let out a collective cheer as the first vote was cast about 7 a.m., one hour after polls were scheduled to open.

As the hours passed, Venezuelans waiting to vote read newspapers and magazines while others chatted with family or friends, listened to music or sipped cups of coffee or soda sold by street vendors.

“I got up at two o’clock in the morning and arrived at the polling station at four,” said Nelly Sanchez, a 54-year-old housewife. “I was really motivated to vote because I believe in the president.”

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As the afternoon wore on tempers flared in some neighborhoods. A crowd of impatient voters near downtown Caracas began shouting at armed Venezuelan troops guarding one polling station.

“They are sabotaging the election,” yelled one woman.

Electoral officials said that some polling stations opened hours late because workers failed to show up on time or needed to complete the process of reviewing the lists of eligible voters.

But mechanical difficulties with the electronic system that scans fingerprints also created bottlenecks at many polling stations.



(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Hugo Chavez

AP-NY-08-15-04 2233EDT



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