Venezuela's controversial president Hugo Chavez -- who makes no secret of his dislike for the US -- was re-elected to an unprecedented third term, fending off a serious challenge to win decisively, 54 to 45 percent. NBC's Kerry Sanders reports from Caracas.
Updated at 8:35 a.m. ET: CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez scored a comfortable election victory that could extend his rule to 20 years and vowed to deepen his self-styled socialist revolution after a bitterly fought race against a youthful rival who has galvanized Venezuela's opposition.
Tens of thousands of ecstatic supporters thronged the streets around the presidential palace in downtown Caracas, pumping fists in the air and shouting Chavez's name after the former soldier beat opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by more than 9 percentage points.
"Viva Chavez," screamed 15-year-old Samuel Urbina as he rode in a car filled with relatives.
However, Chavez only got 135,000 more votes this time around than he did six years ago, while the opposition boosted its tally by 1.85 million.
Capriles also narrowed Chavez's margin of victory to his smallest yet in a presidential contest.
Chavez won 54 percent of votes compared to Capriles' 45 percent, according to Venezuela's National Electoral Council. In 2006, Chavez's margin of victory was 27 points.
Turnout this year was around 80 percent.
Capriles, a state governor, had accused the flamboyant incumbent of unfairly leveraging to his advantage Venezuela's oil wealth as well as his near total control of state institutions.
The new six-year term will let Chavez consolidate his control over Venezuela's economy by extending a wave of nationalizations and continue his support for left-wing allies in Latin America and around the world. It also cemented Chavez as a dominant figure in modern Latin American history.
"Truthfully, this has been the perfect battle, a democratic battle," Chavez thundered from the balcony of the presidential palace on Sunday, waving a replica of the sword of independence hero Simon Bolivar. "Venezuela will continue along the path of democratic and Bolivarian socialism of the 21st century."
Supporters dripping with sweat strained to catch a glimpse of Chavez from the street below the palace while dancing and drinking rum.
It was an extraordinary victory for a leader who just a few months ago feared for his life as he struggled to recover from cancer. Chavez 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.
According to Venezuela’s constitution, if Chavez were to die within the first four years of his term, then his vice president, Elías Jaua, would serve as president only until a special election is held.
But if the president dies within the last two years of his term, then the vice president would serve as president until the end of the term.
Jorge Silva / Reuters
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrates from a balcony at Miraflores Palace in Caracas on Sunday night.
'Protecting the poor'
Casting himself as an heir to Bolivar, Chavez has poured billions of dollars in oil revenues into anti-poverty programs, and skillfully used his humble roots and folksy oratory to build a close connection with the masses.
"Chavez is my joy. He will continue protecting the poor and defenseless," said Gladys Montijo, 54, a teacher.
A retired lieutenant colonel who first won fame with a failed 1992 coup, Chavez has become Latin America's principal anti-U.S. agitator. He has criticized Washington while getting close to U.S. adversaries including Cuba and Iran.
Chavez may launch nationalizations in some largely untouched corners of the economy, including the banking, food and health industries. He took advantage of his landslide win in 2006 to order takeovers in the telecoms, electricity and oil sectors.
Opposition leaders appeared crushed by the loss.
Ariana Cubillos / AP
Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles conceded defeat on Sunday.
It followed nearly a month of euphoria as Capriles, 40, polished his stump speeches, held increasingly fervent rallies and appeared be to gaining ground in the polls.
The youthful state governor put on a brave face, celebrating his "house-by-house" campaign as the start of a long road to changing the direction of the country.
"I gave it my all and I'm proud of what we built," a subdued Capriles told supporters at his campaign headquarters.
"I will continue to work for Venezuela," he said.
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 Chavez's charisma, well-oiled political machine and legacy of putting Venezuela's poor first with generous social welfare programs.
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.
"Today was a historical day, the people made their voices heard," Capriles wrote later on Twitter, urging calm.
He and other leaders of the Democratic Unity coalition must now prepare for state governorship elections in December, when they will hope at least to increase the opposition's influence at the local level.
Though Capriles was indisputably the strongest candidate to face Chavez since the leftist leader's election in 1998, few in the opposition thought the fight was fair.
'Opportunity to change the future'
Eager to exercise their right to pick their next leader, Venezuelans started lining up to vote before dawn. Some stood for hours even after the polls opened just to cast their votes, but many said it was worth it.
"You have the opportunity to change the future," said Caracas resident Marco Casanova.
More than 7,000 Venezuelans who have settled in Florida after fleeing Chavez’s traveled to cast their votes at the nearest consulate, which is in New Orleans.
Connecticut resident Maria Pinango traveled to the consulate in New York on Sunday to vote.
"It’s the future of the country and it’s the future of Latin America because the way that Venezuela goes, it’s going to impact the rest of the region," Pinango, who has relatives in Venezuela, said.
The life of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez from his rise as a lieutenant colonel after his failed coup attempt in 1992.
Chavez made ample use of state television and spent 47 hours in "chain" broadcasts that force other television stations to carry speeches peppered with political commentary.
He also handed out homes and pensions financed with state funds, often in ceremonies that glorified his administration, while warning that the opposition would rescind such benefits.
Tense relations with US
Relations with Washington are likely to remain on edge, though Venezuelan oil has continued to flow to the United States over the years despite the diplomatic tension.
Still, oil production has decreased 30 percent since Chavez took office, analysts say.
Among the reasons for the slow down of production by PDVSA, the country's state-owned oil and natural gas company, is Chavez’ decision to strip long-time partners Exxon and Conoco of any participation in the country’s energy production, said former oil executive Jorge Pinon, now at the University of Texas in Austin.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez faced his first serious challenger after 14 years as head of state. Chavez has used huge profits from oil exports here to benefit the poor. NBC's Kerry Sanders reports.
"The technology and capital that Venezuela needs in order to increase the production in heavy oil is in the U.S.," Pinon said.
According to energy analysts, Chavez has used oil profits to pay for all his social programs and has not reinvested them in the state-owned energy industry, so equipment is deteriorating and production will slow even further.
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