The United States said Tuesday it accepts results showing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won Sunday's recall referendum and will continue to engage with his government. But the State Department says opposition claims of fraud in the vote should be investigated.
U.S. officials had been hesitant to embrace preliminary vote returns showing Mr. Chavez easily winning the referendum, with opposition leaders claiming widespread election fraud.
But after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Organization of American States, who monitored the vote, said they concurred with the outcome, the Bush administration fell in line and recognized the Chavez victory.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States joined other members of the informal Friends of Venezuela grouping in acknowledging preliminary returns showing a 58 percent Chavez majority.
He said the United States had long held that the referendum, if conducted freely, fairly and transparently could be an important step toward a peaceful and democratic solution to Venezuela's political crisis, and that it appears those criteria were met in Sunday's vote.
"Those principles in our view and in the view of the Friends of Venezuela have largely been followed," said Mr. Ereli. "And the results are there for everybody to see: a peaceful referendum that was conducted transparently and that resulted in people expressing their will. Now it's time to respect that will, and move on."
Mr. Ereli called on the Venezuelan National Electoral Commission to work with the election monitors, the OAS and the Carter Center, to conduct a transparent audit of the returns to address the concerns of Chavez opponents as part of a process of national reconciliation.
The spokesman congratulated the people of Venezuela for the way they handled the election process. He declined under questioning to congratulate Mr. Chavez personally, though a senior official here said the United States is looking to engage with his government in light of the referendum.
The Bush administration has had a difficult relationship with Mr. Chavez, a left-leaning populist who has been a strident critic of U.S. policies in Iraq and elsewhere.
But spokesman Ereli said the two countries have traditionally had close relations, and continue to share fundamental values of democracy and human rights and a mutually-beneficial economic relationship.
Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and supplies about 13 percent of the oil consumed in the United States.