Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, long a thorn in the side of the Bush administration, may be around a lot longer if a vote this weekend goes his way.
On Sunday, Venezuelans will vote on a referendum to drop term limits, allowing Chavez to run for president again in 2012. Chavez's opponents call him an autocrat and are urging Venezuelans to turn back the legislation. They point to the government's efforts to hold on to power in the capital city of Caracas as evidence of Chavez's heavy-handed rule.
In November, opposition leaders celebrated after winning key posts in gubernatorial and mayoral elections — particularly in Caracas, where strident Chavez foe Antonio Ledezma won city hall.
But in the weeks after the elections, Chavez's red-shirted supporters — some armed — occupied city hall and at least three other buildings. Incoming officials said they've been prevented from using their offices.
Ledezma has been forced to run the city from offices on the 19th floor of a downtown skyscraper. The mayor says he was no match for the armed men who took over city hall. He says he may have the authority, but his opponents wield violence.
Offcials at other vital city agencies have been similarly ousted. Workers and managers said that before being barred from their offices, they found them ransacked. Computers were stolen and files disappeared.
"They destroyed the building, all the contents inside, they destroyed the previous information for the last four years," says Angel Rangel, the city's chief of security. He says motorcycles and other vehicles are missing, too.
City workers also found that the previous mayor, a close ally of Chavez, had hired nearly 9,000 workers on a contract basis. Ledezma says they weren't hired for traditional city jobs.
Speaking to supporters recently, Ledezma said the employees instead were used to campaign in neighborhoods. He says some served as bodyguards to Chavez or lawmakers in Congress and as shock troops to intimidate foes. Many of them didn't work at all. Ledezma told the crowd that those workers are now out of jobs.
City officials say the mayor's experience with Venezuela's bare-knuckle politics has a lesson: Chavez will not easily share power. They say that's worrisome as Chavez lobbies to extend his rule. If Sunday's referendum is passed, Chavez could possibly extend his rule far into the 21st century.
Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor and government foe says the takeover is part of a government policy to not fully recognize the results of November's election — when the president's foes for the first time chipped away at his hold on political offices nationwide.
Chavez says the takeover wasn't politically motivated, but is instead part of a labor dispute. And he has angry words for Ledezma.
He says Ledezma's arrival as mayor of Caracas is another step in the opposition's destabilization plans. He uses a term from the Spanish Civil War, no volveran, meaning "they will not return."