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Chavez calls for peace in wake of vote

By
CARMEN GENTILE

CARACAS, Venezuela, Aug. 16 (UPI) -- Venezuela's president called for "democracy, tolerance and harmony" Monday after surviving a referendum vote that left his critics feeling bitter and cheated.

The leftist Hugo Chavez has spent the better part of his six years in office at the center of political maelstrom leading up to Sunday's vote, a battle pitting an opposition force -- who condemn the president for his heavy-handed approach to Venezuela's economy and accuse him of creating a Cuban-style regime -- against his supporters known as "Chavistas." They herald Chavez as a champion of the poor for providing doctors and educators in slums and rural Venezuela.

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Speaking at a news conference at his presidential palace, where jubilant revelers have celebrated for nearly a full day, Chavez praised the electoral process and said Venezuela "was beginning (Monday) a new process of transformation that began six years ago."

Chavez first assumed office in 1998 for a six-year term, though fresh elections were held in 2000 after the country ratified a new constitution. His term is set to expire in 2006.

But opponents to the president did not want to wait that long to challenge Chavez once again, spending months gathering and ratifying a petition calling for a referendum vote.

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Once they got it, however, they seemed less than pleased with the vote. "We firmly and categorically reject the result," opposition leader Henry Ramos Alliup told a news conference. "We're going to collect the evidence to prove to Venezuela and the world (of) the gigantic fraud that has been committed against the will of the people."

International observers on hand for the election disagree with the opposition, as do many analysts.

According to former President Jimmy Carter, who led a delegation of observers for the vote, Sunday's referendum was free from fraud or any federal tampering. "We didn't find any evidence of fraud," agreed Cesar Gaiviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, who was also in the country to oversee the vote.

"All Venezuelans should accept the results (of the referendum) unless there is tangible proof otherwise," said Carter, apparently trying to both put a quick end to any suspicions of fraud and prevent Chavez detractors from demonstrating as many promised.

Hundreds of angry opposition marchers converged on the city Monday afternoon to protest the results. One person was killed by unknown assailants and six injured, including a federal deputy who was shot though not seriously injured.

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Central University of Venezuela historian Margarita Lopez-Maya condemned the opposition leadership, which includes several prominent lawmakers like Miranda state Gov. Enrique Mendoza, for encouraging civil disobedience at a time when the country needs stability.

"We (Venezuela) have a leadership in the opposition that is good for nothing," said Lopez-Maya bluntly, adding that the growing economic divide between traditionally wealthy Chavez haters and his poorer admirers illustrates the need for the former to realize that they are definitely in the minority.

However, opponents to the president were in no mood to contemplate the new political reality Monday following a long day of voting. Some Venezuelans had no choice Sunday but to wait up to 11 hours in line at polls if they wanted to cast their ballot in what was reportedly a record turnout.

Although the race was far from over Sunday, thousands of presidential supporters expressed confidence early in the day that their leader had prevailed.

"The devil is crying because God is winning," screamed one joyous Chavista at a rally blocks from Chavez's downtown residence Miraflores. Fireworks illuminated the night sky, while car horns and whistles created a deafening stir.

Thousands wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with a simple "No" signifying their support of Chavez shouted and pounded on passing cars, reveling in what they view as the ultimate victory over the opposition.

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On Monday, Chavez made a point of telling the international community that he would work with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to lower oil prices and increase productivity in Venezuela, the world's 5th largest oil producer.

He also guaranteed the oil supply would continue uninterrupted to the United States. World oil prices responded by falling from record highs.

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