Caracas, Venezuela Bolstered by a stunning victory in a hotly fought recall referendum, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Monday vowed that he would carry on with his leftist "revolution" and urged Washington to "respect" his government.
Opposition leaders who battled for nearly three years for a vote to cut short Chavez's six-year term immediately charged fraud and said their own exit polls from Sunday's vote showed them handily defeating the president.
But their allegations were undermined when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, said their independent monitoring of the balloting process showed Chavez winning.
"After our own analysis, we are in a condition to say that our results coincide with the Electoral Council's," Carter said of the figures released by Venezuela's National Electoral Council.
Both Carter's Atlanta-based Carter Center and the OAS said they used "quick counts" -- representative samples from polling stations across the country -- to verify the government's numbers.
The council's figures showed Chavez defeating Latin America's first presidential recall vote, 58 percent to 42 percent -- a wider margin than in his last presidential election victory in 2000.
A record 10 million voters took part in what turned out to be a 20-hour vote amid delays created by the sheer number of voters and problems with computerized fingerprint-checking machines used to prevent fraud.
Chavez's opponents accuse him of being an authoritarian ruler who has ruined this oil-rich country's economy and sparked a virtual class war by telling Venezuela's poor majority that their problems are the fault of the wealthy and the business class.
The 50-year-old former army lieutenant colonel has in turn branded his critics "squalid" and corrupt, and he has accused the Bush administration of financing the opposition.
"Hopefully, from this day on, Washington will respect the government and the people of Venezuela," he declared in an predawn appearance on a balcony at the Miraflores presidential palace.
While the Cuban government and others around the world immediately congratulated Chavez, the Bush administration initially reacted cautiously to the victory. State Department spokesman Tom Casey praised the vote Sunday as "relatively calm, relatively peaceful." Casey added that he hoped the referendum would help "achieve a peaceful, democratic, constitutional solution to Venezuela's ongoing political crisis."
Washington can ill afford to take sides in Venezuela's political crisis. Venezuela is Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' third largest producer, exporting about 13 percent of U.S. needs.