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Old December 3rd, 2006, 03:26 PM  
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Name: Miguel
Join Date: April 1, 2006
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Age: 25
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Default Chavez Seeks 6 More Years in Venezuela (whatever)

CARACAS, Venezuela - President Hugo Chavez sought another six-year term Sunday in an election that once again highlighted Venezuela's class divisions and could further entrench one of the Bush administration's most defiant Latin American critics.

Chavez led in various pre-election polls over Manuel Rosales, a tough-talking former state governor who has galvanized the opposition by promising to unseat a leader he accuses of steering Venezuela toward Cuba-style, one-man rule.

The Venezuelan president waved and blew kisses to a crowd of cheering supporters after arriving in a red Volkswagen Beetle to vote in a Caracas slum.

"I'm absolutely sure that the process is and will be totally transparent," Chavez said after casting his ballot. "Let's vote, leave calmly and wait for the results."

Voting in his hometown of Maracaibo in western Venezuela, Rosales complained about delays in opening voting stations in areas traditionally favoring Chavez opponents and urged officials to speed the process.

"Today the future of Venezuela is at stake," said Rosales. A crowd of supporters shouted, "Manuel, president!"

Lines formed outside many polling centers in the morning darkness, and Chavez supporters played recordings of bugle calls over loudspeakers in spots across the capital. Election officials predicted a record turnout.

The former paratrooper has won loyal support from the poor by using the country's oil wealth to fund multibillion-dollar programs offering subsidized food, free university education, cash benefits for single mothers and other aid.

"Chavez is the first president who has done a lot for the people. He's given us socialism, which means equality," said Johnny Parody, a 31-year-old police officer waiting in the darkness to vote in Maracaibo.

The campaign has been hostile, with Chavez calling Rosales a pawn of Washington and Rosales saying his supporters would be alert for fraud.

Alicia Primera, a 54-year-old housewife voting in Caracas, was among voters so passionate that they spent all night in line.

"I voted for Chavez previously. I cried for him," said Primera. "Now I'm crying for him to leave. He's sown a lot of hate."

Conflict and ambition have marked the rise of Chavez, 52, from a boy selling homemade sweets in a dusty backwater to a failed coup commander in 1992 and now a leader who, if re-elected, promises to set the tone of politics in Latin America for years to come.

He has called President Bush the devil, allied himself with Iran and affected election races across Latin America while clashing at home with business leaders and opposition-aligned media.

Since he was voted into office in 1998 on a wave of discontent with Venezuela's corrupt political elite, Chavez has increasingly dominated all branches of government. His allies now control Congress, state offices and the judiciary.

Loyalists helped him survive a 2002 coup along with a subsequent general strike and 2004 recall referendum.

Rosales, a cattle rancher and Zulia state governor who stepped down temporarily to run against Chavez, has rebuilt the opposition from its defeat in the 2004 referendum. His campaign focused on issues such as rampant crime and corruption, which polls have shown are vulnerabilities for Chavez.

An independent AP-Ipsos poll last month found Chavez with a large lead _ a result echoed in several recent surveys. Rosales supporters cite other polls that predict a tight vote.

Chavez has accused the opposition of planning disruptions if he won. Fearing street protests or unrest, shoppers packed grocery stores to stock up on supplies.

More than 125,000 soldiers and reservists were deployed nationwide to provide security and safeguard voting machines and ballots, officials said. Security also was tightened at oil installations.

About 16 million Venezuelans are registered to vote. Observers from the European Union, the Carter Center and the Organization of American States were monitoring.

Representatives of both the Chavez and Rosales campaigns also were to monitor polling centers and participate in a post-vote audit of 54 percent of ballot boxes containing paper slips generated by the electronic voting machines.

The opposition accuses Chavez of waging an unfair propaganda campaign by appearing constantly on state TV. Some also have accused the government of pressuring public employees, who number about 2 million, to show support for Chavez.

Chavez insists he is a democrat and will respect private property, though he has said he might nationalize utilities and has already increased state control over the key oil industry.

An unapologetic admirer of Cuban President Fidel Castro, Chavez has worried some by his unabashed ambitions to govern Venezuela until 2021 or longer. Chavez has said he would convene a commission upon re-election to propose constitutional reforms, likely including an end to presidential term limits.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)

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