|Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets hundreds of supporters from the balcony of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Dec. 3, 2006|
Venezuela's fiercely anti-US President Hugo Chavez won a landslide re-election on Sunday, which he said would launch an era of "new democracy" in the South American country.
Chavez supporters set off salvos of thunderous fireworks as the controversial leftist leader proclaimed victory from the balcony of the presidential palace in Caracas.
"Today, a new era has started, with the expansion of the revolution, of a revolutionary democracy," Chavez told the cheering crowd adding that Venezuela was firmly on the track to socialism.
Crowds of supporters braved a torrential downpour to cheer the president outside the palace and celebrate in the streets, swaying to the tune of pro-Chavez songs blaring from truck-mounted loudspeakers.
The controversial president, who has been in office for eight years, has pledged to consolidate his self-styled revolution and launch a new socialist era in the oil-rich but poverty-plagued South American country.
A former paratrooper who once led a failed military coup, Chavez, 52, has survived a two-day ouster, a recall referendum and a massive oil strike aimed at forcing him to step down.
Flush with petrodollars, he has vowed to boost social programs that have kept him popular among the millions of impoverished Venezuelans who played a key role in giving him landslide electoral victories in 1998 and again in 2000.
"Chavez enjoys widespread support for his signature social programs among the Venezuelan poor who make up the majority of the population," said pollster Alex Evans.
"It is this support, combined with his personal charisma, that are responsible for his re-election today," said Evans, who conducted voter polls for a state-run company.
Chavez has also cultivated his image as a virulent critic of US President George W. Bush, whom he called "the devil" incarnate before the UN General Assembly.
At the same time, Venezuela exports about half its daily oil production of more than three million barrels a day to the United States.
After he cast his ballot on Sunday, Chavez insisted Venezuela wanted the best possible relations with all countries, "including the United States," and hailed as a good signal a statement by a US State Department official recognizing that the South American country waged its political battles through democratic institutions.
A close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the leftist leader has accused Washington of seeking to sew discord in Venezuela, and repeatedly denounced his electoral rival as a lackey of the "US empire."
The Venezuelan election capped a busy electoral year in Latin America where five leftist presidents were voted into office or won another term.
Chavez, who had been accused of meddling in some of the elections in the region, hailed the recent leftist victories, which he said would give impetus to his plan for regional economic integration he hopes will lessen US influence in the region.