Recent deadly protests point to potential volatile dispute if election is close
Lines snaked outside many polling stations, and Information Minister Willian Lara said across the country there was “a massive turnout.” Voters were awakened in Caracas by fireworks exploding in the pre-dawn sky and reveille blaring from speakers mounted on cruising trucks.
Chavez has warned opponents he will not tolerate attempts to stir up violence, and threatened to cut off oil exports to the U.S. if Washington interferes. His country is a major supplier to the United States, which in turn is the No. 1 buyer of Venezuelan oil.
Chavez, who has become Latin America’s most outspoken antagonist of Washington since he was first elected in 1998, calls the constitutional overhaul vital to making Venezuela a socialist state. He labels those who resist it pawns of President Bush.
A turning point
Venezuelans across the political spectrum saw the referendum as a turning point. Some Chavez opponents described it as a protest vote — and a point of no return.
“This is our last chance to change things,” said Judith Padova, a 57-year-old housewife who lined up among about 300 voters in the Caracas neighborhood of Los Ruices.
While the Venezuelan government touts polls showing Chavez ahead, other surveys cited by the opposition indicate strong resistance — which would be a change for a leader who easily won re-election last year with 63 percent of the vote.
Pollster Luis Vicente Leon said tracking polls by his firm Datanalisis in the past week show the vote is too close to predict. Which side wins will depend largely on turnout among Chavez’s supporters and opponents, he said.
Opposition leader Manuel Rosales, who lost to Chavez in the 2006 presidential race, urged voters to turn out in large numbers.
“Venezuela is in the middle of a great crossroads,” Rosales said before casting his ballot in western Zulia state, where he is governor. His supporters chanted, “freedom, freedom!”
U.S. urges 'free and fair' vote
Before the vote, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday that the United States hopes the referendum will be “a free and fair contest.”
getCSS("3053751") Key proposals
A referendum before Venezuelan voters Sunday asked them to decide on 69 changes to the constitution proposed by President Hugo Chavez and his congressional allies. The revisions include the following key changes:
— Lengthening presidential terms from six to seven years. Eliminating terms limits to allow the president to run for re-election indefinitely.
— Redrawing the country’s political map and allowing the president to handpick provincial and municipal leaders.
— Allowing the president to declare a state of emergency for an unlimited period, as long as “the causes that motivated it remain.”
— Prohibiting large land estates. Allowing the state to provisionally occupy property slated for expropriation before a court has ruled.
— Prohibiting foreign funding for “associations with political aims.” Critics warn this could be used to strangle human rights groups.
— Granting the president control over the Central Bank, which previously had autonomy.
— Reducing the official workday from eight to six hours.
The Associated Press
Speaking to reporters Saturday, Chavez accused the U.S. government of plotting to discredit what he says will be a legitimate victory for him at the polls.
“They are preparing to disavow the results, so we hope the popular will is respected,” Chavez said.
The socialist leader sought to capitalize on his personal popularity ahead of the vote. He is seen by many as a champion of the poor who has redistributed more oil wealth than any other leader in memory.
Opponents — including Roman Catholic leaders, press freedom groups, human rights groups and prominent business leaders — fear the reforms would grant Chavez unchecked power and threaten basic rights.
The changes would create new forms of communal property, extend presidential terms from six to seven years and let Chavez seek re-election. If Chavez were to lose, he would be barred from running for re-election in 2012.
The reforms would also grant Chavez control over the Central Bank, allow his government to detain citizens without charge during a state of emergency, and empower him to redraw the country’s political map and handpick provincial and municipal leaders.
Many Chavez supporters say he needs more time in office to consolidate his brand of “21st century socialism,” and they praise other proposed changes such as shortening the workday from eight hours to six, creating a social security fund for millions of informal laborers and promoting communal councils where residents decide how to spend government funds.
Protests, fatal clashes raise tensions
Tensions have surged in recent weeks as university students led protests and occasionally clashed with police and Chavista groups. One man was shot dead Monday while trying to get through a road blocked by protesters.
But Tibisay Lucena, chief of the National Electoral Council, called the vote “the calmest we’ve had in the last 10 years.”
Some 140,000 soldiers and reservists were posted for the vote, the Defense Ministry said.
The opposition called for close monitoring of an outcome they predict will be close.
About 100 electoral observers from 39 countries in Latin America, Europe and the United States were on hand, plus hundreds of Venezuelan observers, the electoral council said. Absent were the Organization of American States and the European Union, which have monitored past votes.
Chavez, 53, says he will stay in power only as long as Venezuelans keep re-electing him — but has added that might be until 2050, when he would be 95 years old.
How big of an impact do you think this will have on anti-Americanism if Chavez wins his case?