Chavez hails landslide election victory as defeat for 'devil' Bush

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The Independent US

Emboldened by a landslide election victory, the Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez is poised to forge ahead with his "Bolivarian revolution" - but analysts warned that the US may continue to try to undermine him.

Mr Chavez secured about 61 per cent of Sunday's vote and immediately told supporters that his third term would see an "expansion of the revolution" that has seen the establishment of social programmes for the poor using the country's oil wealth.

"Long live the revolution. Venezuela is demonstrating that a new and better world is possible and we are building it," Mr Chavez said from the balcony of the presidential palace on Sunday evening. Repeating an attack on the US President, George Bush, he said: "It's another defeat for the devil, who tries to dominate the world. Down with imperialism."

While Mr Chavez has said his third term would be his most radical yet, analysts said Washington could yet step up efforts to undermine him - something it has previously done by directing millions of dollars to opposition groups in Venezuela. In 2002, the Bush administration tacitly supported a coup against Mr Chavez.

"If Chavez is prudent he will lower the rhetoric and get on with administrating his extremely successful domestic programmes. He has had this success because he is the first leader to put money behind these programmes," said Larry Birns of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "[A big question] is whether the Bush administration is prepared to allow Venezuela to continue with its leftist rhetoric ... If Washington sees this as a declaration of war, that is going to be a very ominous decision for the Bush administration to take."

Mr Birns said documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that contrary to Washington's claims that it had channelled only $30,000 (£16,000) to groups opposed to Mr Chavez, millions of dollars had been provided by bodies such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). "Venezuela could easily become a target for Washington skulduggery," he added.

The writer and activist Tariq Ali, author of a recent study of Mr Chavez's presidency, Pirates of the Caribbean, predicted Sunday's result would have considerable impact outside Venezuela.

"The Bolivarian triumph in Caracas will strengthen all the movements in South America that want to break with the Washington consensus. It will strengthen regional cohesion against the US and might make [Felipe] Calderon's Presidency in Mexico a short-lived affair," he said. "As far as Washington is concerned, the Venezuelans will deal with each issue on its merit. The US has been consistently involved in attempts to destabilise and topple Chavez. If they respect Venezuelan independence, Caracas will respond accordingly."

Mr Chavez's opponent, Manuel Rosales, who secured about 39 per cent of the vote, quickly conceded defeat but said he would continue his efforts to counter "Castro Communism". "We recognise that today they defeated us. We will continue in this struggle," he told supporters, according to the Reuters news agency. It is unclear whether Mr Chavez will seek to again change the Venezuelan constitution to allow him to pursue a fourth term. Even if he does not seek such a course, some observers predicted his third term could be difficult.

"I think he will attempt to forge ahead, but I do not think it will be plain sailing all the way," said Michael Shifter of the Inter American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank. "So far, he has been quite shrewd at shielding himself from [the criticisms about] crime and corruption, but I think there is a limit to that."

Mr Chavez's supporters are drawn overwhelmingly from the country's poor, who have seen genuine improvements as a result of his various "missions". At the same time his opponents are largely from the middle classes, resulting in a polarised country. One newspaper routinely critical of Mr Chavez, El Nacional, said in its editorial yesterday that Venezuela was not "two countries, but rather one country that should get back together".

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