In South Florida's Venezuelan enclave of Doral this weekend, happy confidence turned to shock and dismay in about the time it took to count the ballots in Caracas.
Fifty-eight-year-old Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had won his third re-election campaign decisively, defeating Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles by a margin of more than 10 percent.
The Capriles campaign says it is "auditing" the results but not questioning the result. But some have serious doubts about the integrity of the election. “Chávez has denied access to international election monitors, employed last-minute ballot changes, controlled the judicial system, harassed independent journalists," U. S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told the Miami Herald.
Hundreds of Venezuelan expatriates travelled to the Venezuelan consulate in New Orleans to vote in the election. And hundreds more, almost certain of a Capriles victory, gathered at watch parties in Doral to await the returns on Sunday night.
El Nuevo Herald reporter Melissa Sanchez spent the evening with them. "They were just really confident that (Capriles) was going to win," she told WLRN.
"Then around 10:30, 10:40, when the announcement came on Globovision on this huge screen TV they had outside that Chávez had been elected, there was a deadening silence."
Thee Miami Herald's Jim Wyss writes from the Venezuelan capital:
The president, in office since 1999, has hailed the victory as an endorsement of his socialist policies that have made him a hero to the poor but put him at odds with the private sector and the United States. Over the last decade, his administration has used the country’s vast oil wealth to finance its social “missions,” including free housing and healthcare, and cash payments to the elderly.
While the government sees the programs as a way to redistribute wealth, the opposition views them as an attempt to buy voters.
During this campaign, the government said it would provide free or deeply subsidized housing to more than 3 million families.
The government has “an excess of resources but a deficit in scruples,” the head of the opposition coalition Ramon Aveledo said Monday. “the vote was free but not clean.”
In Cuba, President Raul Castro congratulated Chavez in a brief message in Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist party. "Your decisive victory assures the continuity of the struggle for the genuine integration of Our America," Castro wrote.
Chávez opponents are now looking forward to regional and municipal elections in December and expecting their candidates to win most of the races.
Analysts say since Chávez himself will not be on the ballot and his money will not be flooding campaigns, victory will be within the reach of many anti-Chávez mayoral and legislative candidates.
Chávez is a cancer patient and whether he will survive his new six-year term is an open question.