Mr Chavez has won his democratic credentials

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The Independent Online

To his opponents, Hugo Chavez, the maverick Venezuelan President, is a reckless demagogue who would, if not stopped, turn his country into a bigger and more dangerous replica of Castro's Cuba. To many of the millions who turned out to support his leadership in a referendum on Sunday, he is a courageous champion of the poorest and most downtrodden.

To his opponents, Hugo Chavez, the maverick Venezuelan President, is a reckless demagogue who would, if not stopped, turn his country into a bigger and more dangerous replica of Castro's Cuba. To many of the millions who turned out to support his leadership in a referendum on Sunday, he is a courageous champion of the poorest and most downtrodden.

Whichever version is closest the truth, Mr Chavez's win must be welcomed as a victory for democracy. Even his harshest critics should be reassured that Mr Chavez submitted to the vote demanded by his foes, even after the relentless campaign they mounted to topple him, including a coup in 2002 and a national strike last year. Indeed it was the president who introduced the constitutional mechanism which could have seen him removed mid-term.

Predictably, the opposition have cried foul, alleging a "gigantic fraud". But two groups of observers - one led by the respected former US president, Jimmy Carter; the other by the Organisation of American States - have now judged the vote free and fair, and the result consistent with their own assessments.

Venezuela matters because of the size of its economy - the fourth biggest in Latin America - and increasingly, with oil prices at record levels, because it is the world's fourth biggest exporter of oil. Whether Venezuela can now embark on a period of stability and begin to address its immense economic problems will depend to a large extent on how the opposition reacts. The convincing margin of Mr Chavez's victory should be a warning to them to wait until the next democratic opportunity to try to unseat him: the elections in 2006. It must also be hoped that the oil-hungry United States refrains from interfering.

For the President's part, he must now attempt to bridge the polarising divisions that are crippling development. Appearing triumphant at the presidential palace in Caracas yesterday, he promised to deliver the next phase of the "revolution": the social reforms that have enraged Venezuela's most powerful economic interests. But he also spoke of opening a dialogue with his opponents. It must be hoped that he meant what he said.

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