Chávez's Challenge

Hugo Chávez, the strong-arm president of the oil power, Venezuela, has shown once again that he's a survivor. He beat back an attempted coup in 2002, and on Sunday handily won a hotly contested referendum that sought to remove him from office.

Allegations of fraud made by the opposition were offset by the fact that hundreds of observers from both the Organization for American States and the Carter Center spread across the country to supervise the mostly peaceful turnout. Former President Jimmy Carter and the OAS endorsed the results Monday.

Not only did he survive; the country's democratic process fared well, with a voter turnout the US could envy. Some 8.5 million people, nearly 61 percent of Venezuela's 14 million eligible voters, stood for hours in long lines. Imagine if the polls in the US in November had to stay open an extra eight hours, as they did in Venezuela, to handle a voting surge.

True, the populist Chávez made political use of some of the country's vast oil wealth to court many of those votes, especially of the nation's poor. He even bought cows with oil money and gave them to poor farmers.

But now that his rule has been confirmed via the ballot box, he must prove he can lead democratically. His sorry record of arresting political opponents, stacking Venezuela's courts, undermining the country's civic institutions - and his close relationship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro - led to violence and schisms at home, and criticism abroad.

If Chávez really wants to improve the lives of the poor, he will have to bring all of his country's resources, including all of Venezuela's people, to bear, and protect their progress through democratic institutions, and processes.

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