Chavez Opposition Swells Ahead of Referendum

Venezuelans go to the polls Sunday to vote on a hefty set of constitutional reforms that would give President Hugo Chavez greater power and also lift presidential term limits. But in the run-up to the vote, several key Chavez supporters have turned against him. Plus, a number of polls suggest that Chavez's proposed reforms may be defeated at the ballot box.

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The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is hoping to gain more power when his country goes to the polls this weekend. The vote will determine whether to change the constitution. Up until now, support for Chavez has been rock solid through one election and referendum after another. But Sunday's referendum has created a groundswell of opposition. Today, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets to voice their fear of a growing dictatorship.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas that even some of the president's most ardent supporters have turned on him.

(Soundbite of music)

JUAN FORERO: Gregorian chants might not be the first you'd relate with tropical, salsa-crazed Venezuela. But many people in this country know that one of the best known heroes of President Hugo Chavez's self-styled socialist revolution, former Defense Minister Raul Baduel, cannot work without the music being piped into his office.

Venezuelans also know he was a long-time friend and ally of President Chavez. So close in fact that he helped rolled back a 2002 coup that briefly overthrew Chavez. But now, Chavez says, Baduel is a traitor. Because he's urging Venezuelans to roundly reject a broad constitutional reform that goes up for a vote on Sunday.

Mr. RAUL BADUEL (Former Venezuelan Defense Minister): (Through translator) If it's approved, the reform would be a coup de etat against the constitution. We're giving discretional power to one person to make big decisions about the direction our country should take.

FORERO: Just a few weeks ago, it appeared a win by Chavez was mere certain. Now, polls show the advantage he had has evaporated. Baduel's defection may have most on the government. But there have been others who've opposed the reforms, like Marisabel Rodriguez, the president's ex-wife, and Ismael Garcia, head of the influential party that had been aligned with Chavez. Venezuelans seem to be listening.

(Soundbite of crowd)

FORERO: At a government market, people lined up for cheap food, basics hard to find elsewhere. It highlights the problem under Venezuela's increasingly state-controlled economy - the lack of eggs, milk and other basic foodstuff.

Rosalina Gonzales(ph), standing in line, has supported Chavez. But now, she's leaning against the referendum. She's tired of food shortages. She especially doesn't like that the reforms would allow the president to run for office indefinitely.

Ms. ROSALINA GONZALES: (Through translator) I think he has to give other people a chance. They could be good people. But they should get the opportunity.

FORERO: Chavez seems fully aware of the challenges he's facing. The president is on an all-out campaign schedule.

(Soundbite of Hugo Chavez singing)

FORERO: That was the president singing a love song and then celebrating with hundreds of poor mothers bussed to a political rally. He's also taking his campaign to television. On the best-known program on government TV "The Razor," he told host Mario Silva that the reform gives more power to the people and dismantles the old elite order.

To be sure, many Venezuelans support Chavez, especially the poor masses who benefited from social programs. In coastal Sucre estate in the east, once a stronghold for Chavez, a group of women sat in a park waiting to go to Caracas and attend a pro-government rally.

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: Music blares from loud speakers nearby, urging people to vote si in the reform.

Fidelina Gomez(ph) says the government would bus her and the others to the capital, feed and house them, and drive them back. She's glad to go. She strongly supports the reform.

Ms. FIDELINA GOMEZ: (Through translator) We approve of it. What we have now, we didn't have before. We have lots of benefits.

FORERO: But Sucre, which last year overwhelmingly voted to reelect Chavez, also is home to another popular politician, a former Chavez supporter. Like Baduel, he helped thwart opposition efforts to oust Chavez - Governor Ramon Martinez.

Now he's saying Venezuelans should vote no. Martinez says the reforms would supplant him and other governors, giving the president the power to name governors and create new states.

Governor RAMON MARTINEZ (Sucre, Venezuela): (Through translator) The president's proposal sidesteps his teeming colleagues.

FORERO: And Martinez says it's a proposal he has pledged to make sure won't succeed.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Cumana, Venezuela.

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Controversy Marks Career of Venezuela's Chavez

Chavez at the U.N.

Hugo Chavez criticized President Bush in a speech he made at the United Nations in Sept. 2006. Read NPR's coverage, and watch the speech.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently lost a bid to change the country's constitution in ways that would have given him expansive new powers, including the chance to stay in office indefinitely.

But the stocky, 53-year-old former soldier already has wide-ranging domestic authority, and his country's oil wealth gives him unprecedented influence outside the country. He has been a polarizing figure in both arenas, clashing with business interests at home and with the United States and other leading industrial nations abroad.

The proposed changes could make it possible for him to stay in power indefinitely.

The Proposed Changes

Among the 69 constitutional changes rejected by voters was one that would have freed Chavez from a two-term limit and allowed him to run for re-election as many times as he wished. Another provision would have given the president authority over the central bank and, thus, over Venezuela's money supply and interest rates. A third proposal would have allowed the government to detain citizens without charge during a state of emergency.

Critics say the changes would have spelled the end of Venezuela's democracy and allowed Chavez to reign as a virtual dictator.

Supporters of the plan say the changes actually would have given more direct power to Venezuela's working people by, among other things, allowing them to speak through a system of neighborhood councils.

Controversial Politics

Chavez has stirred controversy through much of his career.

He is a former Venezuelan Army paratrooper who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before leading a failed military coup in 1992. He and his military colleagues based their attempted revolution on a socialist-style doctrine called "Bolivarianism," which was named for Simon Bolivar, the 19th century Venezuelan revolutionary leader. The doctrine, which they had developed over 10 years, calls for freedom from foreign economic or political domination, participatory democracy, economic self-sufficiency and fair distribution of the country's oil wealth.

After his troops failed to gain control of Venezuela's capital city, Caracas, Chavez gave himself up and served two years in prison. While he was in jail, the man he sought to overthrow, President Carlos Andres Perez, was impeached on corruption charges and removed from office.

Chavez was pardoned in 1994. He entered politics, establishing a party called the Movement of the Fifth Republic.

He advocated free health care and education for Venezuela's poor, as well as a fair distribution of Venezuela's oil wealth. This platform helped him win the presidency in 1998, with 56 percent of the vote.

Leading the Country

Once in office, Chavez responded to his major constituency, the poor, with "Plan Bolivar 2000." He boosted government spending on roads, housing and disease prevention. He also blocked efforts to privatize state-controlled businesses, including some in the oil and aluminum industries.

When opponents in Venezuela's national assembly stalled his legislation, he called a referendum to rewrite the constitution and held an election that ensured it was rewritten by his supporters. The new constitution increased the president's powers and made it easier for him to control the legislative branch.

In 2002, Chavez was briefly deposed in a coup, triggered, in part, by his attempts to gain control over the state-owned oil company. He was held under arrest for about two days before soldiers loyal to him recaptured the presidential palace and restored him to power.

Chavez later claimed that the administration of President George W. Bush provided covert support for those who tried to overthrow him, a charge the United States has denied.

Two years later, Chavez prevailed over an attempt to recall him, winning 59 percent of the vote in an election that was certified by international monitors as free and fair.

Foreign Allegiances

In foreign affairs, Chavez has sought to align himself with Latin American leaders who oppose the influence of the United States, especially on their economic policies. They include Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Bolivian President Evo Morales and outgoing Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner.

He has also met with autocratic rulers from other nations, including Moammar Gadhafi of Libya and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Chavez often antagonizes the United States. In a 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he referred to President Bush as "the devil," accusing him of seeking to dominate and exploit developing nations. He also has offered deeply discounted heating fuel to low-income families in the United States, from parts of New York City to remote villages in Alaska.

Chavez's abrasive style has recently drawn him into confrontations with other world figures. At a recent summit meeting in Chile, King Juan Carlos of Spain asked the Venezuelan leader why he wouldn't "shut up" while the Spanish prime minister was speaking.

He recently insulted the president of neighboring Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, during an effort to mediate with Colombia's leftist rebels. Chavez called Uribe "a servile instrument of the North American empire in Latin America."

Chavez' defeat in the referendum on Venezuela's constitution marks the first time he ever lost an election. He said he accepted the results and acknowledged that he may have over-reached himself. "I understand and accept that the proposal I made was quite profound and intense," he told reporters after the results were announced.

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