President Hugo Chávez won a third consecutive six-year term on Sunday, in his narrowest win in a presidential contest yet, as the populace endorsed once again Chávez's stated aim of converting Venezuela into a socialist state.
Chávez won narrowly against a youthful rival who has galvanized Venezuela's opposition, Henrique Capriles, who had accused the flamboyant incumbent of unfairly leveraging to his advantage Venezuela's oil wealth to finance his campaign as well as flaunting his near total control of state institutions.
Capriles also narrowed Chávez's margin of victory to his smallest yet in a presidential contest. This time, the former army paratroop commander who led a failed 1992 coup won 55 percent of the vote against 45 percent for Capriles, with 98 percent of the vote counted.
In 2006, Chávez's margin of victory was 27 points.
Capriles said in his concession speech that he rejects the idea of two Venezuelas divided by ideology and class.
I don't know what planet he lives on. He wants to be like Fidel Castro — end up with everything, take control of the country.
- Gino Caso, auto mechanic in Venezuela
"I will continue working to build one country," said the wiry, 40-year-old grandson of Holocaust survivors who unified and energized the opposition while barnstorming across the oil-exporting nation.
Capriles had vowed to seriously address violent crime that has spun out of control, streamline a patronage-bloated bureaucracy and end rampant corruption, but his promises proved inadequate against Chávez's charisma, well-oiled political machine and legacy of putting Venezuela's poor first with generous social welfare programs.
Yet Chávez only got 551,902 more votes this time around than he did six years ago, while the opposition boosted its tally by 2.09 million. Chávez appeared to acknowledge the opposition's growing clout.
"I extend from here my recognition of all who voted against us, recognition of their democratic weight," he told thousands of cheering supporters from the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace.
Tensions were high Sunday night as announcement of the results were delayed.
Finally, fireworks exploded over downtown Caracas amid a cacophony of horn-honking by elated Chávez supporters waving flags and jumping for joy outside the presidential palace.
Chávez will now have a freer hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy, as he pledged during the campaign, and to continue populist programs. He's also likely to further limit dissent and deepen friendships with U.S. rivals.
A Capriles victory would have brought a radical foreign policy shift including a halt to preferential oil deals with allies such as Cuba, along with a loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment.
President Raul Castro of Cuba, which could have been badly hurt by a Chávez loss, was among Latin American leaders sending warm congratulations to the former paratrooper on his victory after nearly 14 years in office.
"I can't describe the relief and happiness I feel right now," said Edgar Gonzalez, a 38-year-old construction worker.
He ran through crowds of Chávez supporters packing the streets around the presidential palace wearing a Venezuelan flag as a cape and yelling: "Oh, no! Chávez won't go!"
"The revolution will continue, thanks to God and the people of this great country," said Gonzalez.
Voter turnout was an impressive 81 percent, compared to 75 percent in 2006. Chávez paid close attention to his military-like get-out-the-vote organization at the grass roots, stressing its importance at campaign rallies. The opposition said he unfairly plowed millions in state funds into the effort.
Chávez spent heavily in the months before the vote, building public housing and bankrolling expanded social programs.
"I think he just cranked up the patronage machine and unleashed a spending orgy," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
But Shifter also didn't deny the affinity and gratefulness Venezuela's poor feel for Chávez. "Despite his illness, I still think he retains a strong emotional connection with a lot of Venezuelans that I think were not prepared to vote against him."
"They still think that he's trying hard even if he's not delivering what he promised, that he still has their best interests at heart," Shifter said.
Chávez spoke little during the campaign about his fight with cancer, which since June 2011 has included surgery to remove tumors from his pelvic region as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He has said his most recent tests showed no sign of illness.
Capriles told supporters not to feel defeated.
"We have planted many seeds across Venezuela and I know that these seeds are going to produce many trees," he told them at his campaign headquarters.
Despite winning a February primary that unified the opposition, Capriles was unable to sufficiently erode Chávez's firm base of loyal support.
One pro-Chávez voter, private bodyguard Carlos Julio Silva, said that whatever his faults, Chávez deserved to win for spreading the nation's oil wealth to the poor with free medical care, public housing and other government programs. The country has the world's largest proven oil reserves.
"There is corruption, there's plenty of bureaucracy, but the people have never had a leader who cared about this country," Silva said after voting for Chávez in the Caracas slum of Petare.
At many polling places, voters began lining up hours before polls opened at dawn, some snaking for blocks in the baking Caribbean sun. Some shaded themselves with umbrellas. Vendors grilled meat and some people drank beer.
Chávez's critics accused the president of inflaming divisions by labeling his opponents "fascists," ''Yankees" and "neo-Nazis," and it's likely hard for many of his opponents to stomach another six years of the loquacious and conflictive leader.
Some said before the vote that they'd consider leaving the country if Chávez won.
Gino Caso, an auto mechanic, said Chávez is power-hungry and out of touch with problems such as crime. He said his son had been robbed, as had neighboring shops.
"I don't know what planet he lives on," Caso said, gesturing with hands blackened with grease. "He wants to be like Fidel Castro — end up with everything, take control of the country."
Reporting by the Associated Press.