WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Monday hailed as a victory for democracy the rare electoral defeat handed to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on proposed changes to Venezuela's constitution.
With the final vote tally showing the changes losing by a margin of 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent, the defeat reinvigorated a Venezuelan opposition humbled by 11 straight election defeats.
''We congratulate the people of Venezuela on their vote and their continued desire to live in freedom and democracy,'' Gordon Johndroe, a White House National Security Council spokesman, said in an e-mail to McClatchy Newspapers.
The Bush administration kept a low profile during the campaign, wary of transforming an event into a U.S.-Venezuela confrontation. Chavez, the U.S. most vociferous opponent in Latin America, regularly casts his opponents, both in Venezuela and abroad, as U.S. stooges.
The State Department also was pleased.
''We felt that this referendum would make Chavez president for life, and that's not ever a welcome development,'' U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters in Singapore, according to the Associated Press. ``In a country that wants to be a democracy, the people spoke, and the people spoke for democracy and against unlimited power.''
Florida Republican Rep. Connie Mack, an outspoken congressional opponent of Chavez, shot off a statement headlined ``Freedom wins!''
''The people of Venezuela have spoken,'' he said. ``They want to live in freedom. They have rejected Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution. They despise his vicious assaults on freedom and free markets, and they fear his cozy relationships and friendships with the likes of the Iranian Mullahs.''
But Mack warned that Chavez still has five years in office, ``a long window for him to continue to make mischief in Venezuela and around the world.''
Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, believed the margin of victory was broader in favor of the 'no' vote, but that Chavez had no choice but to admit defeat.
''It will be a bitter pill and he will be slashing in every direction and will provoke another crisis,'' said Noriega, who often engaged in verbal duels with Chavez until leaving office in 2005.
''If he overreaches again or soon, he will be risking everything, and he knows it,'' Noriega said.
In Venezuela, Chavez conceded defeat in an overnight speech, though he didn't say that he wouldn't resurrect the proposals at some later date. He said his defeat was "for now," words he also used in 1992 when he was captured after a failed coup attempt.
Later, he told reporters at the presidential palace in Carcas, the Venezuelan capital, that the results had taught him that "Venezuelan democracy is maturing." His respect for the verdict, he asserted, proves he is a true democratic leader.
"From this moment on, let's be calm," he said, urging that there be no more street violence like the clashes that marred pre-vote protests. "There is no dictatorship here."
The outcome marks the emergence of two potentially formidable political foes: university student leaders who galvanized the opposition and retired Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel, who once was one of Chavez's closest collaborators as defense minister but became a harsh critic of the proposed changes.
Turnout for the vote was low — 56 percent, amid speculation that many of Chavez's usual supporters stayed away from the polls.
(Miami Herald correspondent Tyler Bridges contributed to this report from Caracas.)