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Nicolas Maduro wins Venezuela presidential election

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(CARICOM NEWS NETWORK).- CARACAS, Venezuela, Monday April 15, 2013 – Caribbean heads of government breathed a collective sigh of relief on Sunday night as Venezuelans voted to honor Hugo Chavez’s dying wish for  Nicolas Maduro to continue his socialist revolution.

Ruling party candidate Nicolas Maduro won Venezuela‘s presidential election on Sunday with 51 percent of votes, the electoral authority said, allowing him to carry forward the socialist policies of the late Hugo Chavez.

Maduro’s young challenger, Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, took 49 percent of the ballots, the authority said, in a tighter-than-expected vote.

Victory for Acting President Nicolas Maduro means that there will be a more than likely continuation of the Petro Caribe initiative introduced in 2005 by former President Hugo Chavez.

Under the terms of the agreement Venezuela allows some eighteen countries in the Caribbean region-including Guyana- to buy oil on favourable terms. In some cases countries only have to pay between five and 50 per cent of the cost up front.

The remainder is paid over a period of between 17 and 25 years under a special financing arrangement which attracts interest of only one per cent.

Maduro had a double-digit lead over opposition challenger Henrique Capriles in most polls heading into election day, buoyed by Chavez’s public blessing before he died from cancer last month. But the gap narrowed in recent days, with one survey putting it at 7 percentage points.

Maduro supporters mobilized voters in the rough barrios of Caracas, where Chavez is revered as a hero of the poor, sounding pre-dawn bugle calls to rouse citizens to get out to vote. Lines formed under blistering sunshine at some voting centers, but many were notably shorter than they were at last October’s election, when an ailing Chavez trounced Capriles.

“We’re going to elect Maduro president because he’s following the path set by Chavez,” Morelia Roa, a 58-year-old nurse, said after casting her ballot in the same working class Caracas district where Maduro voted.

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, has promised to deepen Chavez’s “21st century socialism” if he triumphs. Capriles, an athletic 40-year-old who has generated widespread enthusiasm among the opposition, wants to take Venezuela down a more centrist path.

Maduro inherits control of the world’s biggest oil reserves in an OPEC nation, where stark political polarization is one of Chavez’s many legacies. Also at stake is the generous economic aid Chavez showered on left-leaning Latin American governments from Cuba to Bolivia.

Some 170 international observers were on hand, many from left-leaning political parties across Latin America.

Sunday’s vote was the first presidential election in two decades without Chavez on the ballot. In many ways, though, it is all about the late president, who was viewed by the poor as a messiah for giving them a political voice and for funneling billions of dollars of oil revenue into social programs.

Maduro campaigned as a loyal disciple of Chavez, repeatedly calling himself an “apostle” and “son” of the late president. Chavez gave Maduro a huge boost by publicly endorsing him in his final speech in December before heading to Cuba for his last cancer operation.

True to form, Maduro dedicated his vote on Sunday to his political mentor.

“The last 21 years of my life have revolved around the dreams of a man, of a giant,” an emotional Maduro said. “I never thought I’d be here. But here I am … And I’m going to be president of the republic for the next six years.”

POST-CHAVEZ CHALLENGES

Maduro will immediately face big challenges as he tries to stamp his authority on a disparate ruling coalition while lacking his mentor’s charisma, or the healthy state finances that Chavez enjoyed in last year’s race.

It is hard to predict how he might do things his own way. Like many senior officials, Maduro was passionately loyal to Chavez and never voiced a different opinion in public.

Supporters say he could use his background as a union negotiator-turned-diplomat to build bridges, perhaps even with the United States after tensions during Chavez’s 14-year rule.

But there was little sign of his softer side on the campaign trail. Maduro’s rhetoric veered from outraged – alleging opposition plots to kill him using mercenaries – to light-hearted, such as poking fun at his often-cited tale of how he was visited by Chavez’s spirit in the form of a bird.

The BBC reported that Mr Maduro said he had spoken to Mr Capriles on the phone. Mr Maduro said the opposition had asked for an audit of the election result, which he said he would allow.

Mr Maduro called for those who had not voted for him to “work together” for the country.

He is due to be sworn in on 19 April and serve until January 2019 to complete the six-year term that Mr Chavez would have begun in January.

Mr Chavez was a divisive leader. To his supporters he was the reforming president whose idiosyncratic brand of socialism defeated the political elite and gave hope to the poorest Venezuelans.

He effectively used his country’s vast oil reserves to boost Venezuela‘s international clout, and his strident criticism of the US won him many political allies in Latin America.

However, his political opponents accused him of being an autocrat, intent on building a one-party state.

Mr Chavez bequeaths a nation beset by crumbling infrastructure, unsustainable public spending and under-performing industry.