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Nicolas Maduro wins Venezuela presidency, council says

CARACAS, Venezuela — Nicolas Maduro, who served as Venezuela’s interim president in the weeks after the death of his mentor, President Hugo Chavez, won a narrow victory over Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles to become the country’s elected leader, officials said.

Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, won the presidential election Sunday with a 235,000-vote margin with nearly 15 million votes cast, much less than the 1.5-million-vote margin by which Chavez won in October, according to the National Electoral Council.

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Speaking at Miraflores presidential palace, Maduro called on Capriles to cooperate in building peace in the highly divided country.

“I call on those who voted against me to work for union, to work together,” Maduro said.

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But Capriles did not concede defeat, saying he did not consider the results legitimate. His campaign documented hundreds of incidents of voting irregularities, he said.

“It was you who was defeated,” Capriles said at his campaign headquarters in Caracas. “This struggle is not over.”

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The results were announced at 11:15 p.m. after a tense wait for an outcome that both sides knew would be close.

Vicente Diaz, a member of the council who represents the opposition, asked that all the votes be recounted manually, although council leader Tibisay Lucena said the results were “irreversible.”

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The close result could raise problems for Maduro, who will take over governing a sharply divided country suffering from high crime, double-digit inflation and scarcity of basic foodstuffs.

Chavez, who transformed this oil-rich, poverty-ridden nation and attempted to light a leftist, anti-American brush fire throughout Latin America, died of cancer March 5.

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On Sunday, a picture-perfect spring day in the capital, Caracas, voters flocked to polling places to cast ballots that would determine whether Venezuela would continue down the leftist trail blazed by Chavez or take a more conservative path offered by Capriles.

Turnout was light early in the day, but heavier in the afternoon. There were no significant problems reported and some voters commented on the relative efficiency of the process.

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Loudspeakers mounted on cars and pickup trucks that sped through the streets of the poor barrios in Caracas played reveille, a signal for Chavistas to get out and vote for Maduro. The interim president cast his vote at a school in the Catia slum, while Capriles voted in the upscale Mercedes section of the capital.

“I voted for him, the Big Guy, for my father,” Maduro said, referring to Chavez, as he left the polling station accompanied by his wife, Cilia Flores, who is Venezuela’s attorney general. “My soul is at rest.”

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Maduro promised that, if he won, he was prepared to reestablish relations with the United States “in terms of equality and respect.” Relations between the two countries have been strained for years, and they have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

But Maduro wasn’t quite ready to back down.

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“There are always problems because they are always conspiring,” Maduro said in reference to the United States, adding that he had new evidence of a U.S.-sponsored plot to destabilize the country, details of which he would announce at a news conference Monday.

During the campaign, Maduro had accused the U.S. of conspiring with opposition labor unions and of causing power blackouts. He expelled two U.S. military attaches last month.

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After Capriles voted, he told reporters he was running to vanquish alleged abuses by the government in the electoral process. Among other things, Capriles has criticized Defense Minister Diego Molero for endorsing Maduro and the socialist revolution.

Opinion polls showed Maduro in the lead heading into the election, but Capriles closing the gap. The challenger’s success was attributed, in part, to a much more aggressive stump style during the abbreviated campaign leading up to Sunday’s snap election than in his losing effort against Chavez in October. Then, Capriles lost to Chavez by 10 percentage points.

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Maduro was also thought to be vulnerable because of homicide rates that have quadrupled since 1999, as well as double-digit inflation and scarcities of foodstuffs.

“Capriles took the gloves off and people were waiting for that,” said Angela Orellana, a physician who voted in the Acacias neighborhood close to Ft. Tiuna, where Chavez’s body lay in repose for a week after he died, and where tens of thousands of Venezuelans went to pay homage.

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“We have to do away with this government of inefficiency, abuses and corruption, and Capriles can show us the way. We’re 40 years behind the times,” Orellana said.

Pablo Garcia, an economics instructor at the Central University of Venezuela, said he waited only a minute or two to vote Sunday in the South San Agustin barrio, a poor neighborhood in south Caracas. In October, he said, he waited five hours.

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“It was much more fluid this time, with less paperwork and confusion,” he said.

Garcia said he voted for Capriles. But his neighborhood is considered a Maduro stronghold, made up largely of the poor voters who were Chavez’s greatest supporters. Jose Ramon Gamero, a traveling fabric salesman, voted at the same polling place, casting his ballot for Maduro.

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“We have to continue the revolutionary process, which has benefited so many people, especially the poor,” he said. “Capriles would be a step backward,” Gamero said, “and we don’t want to go there.”

Migdalia Vivas, a cosmetics distributor, said after voting at San Lazaro elementary school in the Acacias barrio that she chose Capriles in hopes that he could unify the country. “Productivity is depressed and families and neighborhoods are divided. It’s very sad.”

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But many poor and working class voters said they feel a great debt to Chavez for having improved their lives and that Maduro, Chavez’s anointed successor, deserved their support. Chavez channeled billions in oil dollars into welfare programs called Missions.

“I didn’t vote for Maduro because of his leadership or anything to do with him personally. I voted for him because he will be a continuation of the will of the people as expressed in the Oct. 7 election won by Chavez,” said law student Daniel Diaz.

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Chicken distributor Harris Santana said a victory for Capriles would halt the country’s path to socialism and return it to a period of less restrained capitalism, “when the country owed the International Money Fund and foreign bankers enormous sums.”

Rosa Castrillo, a homemaker and mother in the South San Agustin barrio, agreed.

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“We have to continue with the revolution, with the Missions that have given us health coverage, Mercal [a cut-rate groceries chain] and free housing,” Castrillo said.

“Before Chavez, we didn’t count, and if Capriles wins, we’ll go back to where we were,” said Castrillo, adding she is on the list to receive a free apartment under the Mission Vivienda program Chavez started before he died.

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Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents.


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