Venezuela Readies for Vote on Constitution
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Venezuelans go to the polls tomorrow to vote on proposed constitutional changes that would give President Hugo Chavez more power. Chavez says the changes would streamline bureaucracy and give power to community councils run by the people, but opponents say it's a power-grab by an increasingly authoritarian leader.
NPR's Juan Forero is in Caracas, and joins us now.
Juan, tomorrow's vote has provoked an unusually strong response among Venezuelans with large numbers of people pouring into the streets in protest.
JUAN FORERO: Yes. Well, a lot of Venezuelans feel that the president is trying to stay in office for life. In fact, one of the articles calls for indefinite reelection. Right now, you can run for reelection for a second six-year term; you could run now indefinitely. I mean, he could run as long as he wins - forever basically. The president also wants more power - power to name governors in newly created provincial states, and he's also looking to control the Central Bank and pretty much all of the government's financing. So, people feel that, really, everything would be in the president's hands.
YDSTIE: And that's got a lot of people riled up.
FORERO: Yeah. The president has been in office now since 1999, and he has, little-by-little, over the last few years, controlled just about every major institution. Last year, in December, he won another six-year term - a second six-year term, and now, he's been pushing for these reforms. And there are a lot of people here in Venezuela who just think that it's going too far, even people in his governing coalition. There have been a number of prominent breaks with former allies of his, people who decided that they didn't like this reform and that president was going too far.
YDSTIE: While this reform issue has riled up many people at home, Chavez's acid tongue has been riling up leaders abroad.
FORERO: Well, for the last few weeks, that's true. The president has been very active. He's normally the kind of person who does not hide what he's thinking. Lately, he's been escalating his verbal assault against foes - real and imagined. One day, he's fighting with Colombia's president; the next minute, he has called church leaders mentally retarded. He has also tried to discredit the university movement here that is protesting against some of his reforms. So he's constantly on television, and he's often attacking his opponents.
YDSTIE: How are President Chavez's intemperate comments playing at home?
FORERO: In this country, analyzing Chavez's comments is almost like political sport, and some political analysts are saying that the bluster might be going too far this time around. There are other analysts who are saying that this is a strategy that is aimed at generating support for the constitutional changes. That's because some of these reforms are very unpopular with Venezuelans, and so they feel that this bluster is really a scare tactic more than anything else; that it's really trying to instill fear in his people; that there's some kind of world conspiracy against Venezuela and keep their minds off some of these reforms, which really aren't very popular.
YDSTIE: NPR's Juan Forero in Caracas. Thanks very much.
FORERO: Thank you.
YDSTIE: You can read more about Hugo Chavez at npr.org.
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