Venezuela Readies for Vote on Constitution

Venezuelans will vote Sunday on proposed changes to their constitution, which would give more power to President Hugo Chavez. Juan Forero talks about the latest from the country's controversial leader.

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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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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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