Venezuela's Chavez Narrowly Loses Referendum

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has suffered a startling defeat in a referendum that would have greatly enhanced his power, including ending presidential term limits. Voters rejected the referendum, 51 percent to 49 percent. Opponents said the country was hurtling toward dictatorship.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

It's a good day for Vladimir Putin. For Hugo Chavez - not so good. Both presidents were aiming to extend their power past their current terms. As expected, President Putin's party won a huge victory in Russia's parliamentary elections. We'll hear more about that in a minute.

Now a huge defeat in Venezuela. Voters there rejected a referendum by 51 to 49 percent that would have cemented President Chavez's power and advanced the country towards socialism. It would've allowed Hugo Chavez to run for reelection indefinitely. Supporters said it would have deepened grassroots democracy, but a newly energized opposition said the country was hurdling toward dictatorship.

NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Caracas.

JULIE McCARTHY: The air was electric as the capital waited into the night for word on the outcome of this unusual contest that has seemed to breathe life back into Venezuela's fractious opposition. When opposition leaders were barred from the room where national election officials announced the results, tempers overflowed.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: But the anger was short-lived, as the opposition emerged as the victor by a razor thin margin.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in Spanish)

McCARTHY: Chants of victory, as the opposition marked its first ballot-box success in the eight years since Chavez took power. Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Teodoro Petkoff said the ball was now in the court of President Chavez, who has called those who failed to support him traitors and CIA stooges.

Mr. TEODORO PETKOFF (Opposition Leader, Former Presidential Candidate, Venezuela): (Spanish Spoken)

McCARTHY: The country has sent the message that Chavez needs to set aside the insults, the grabbing and the idea that those who oppose him are imperialists or serpents or coup mongers. We are all Venezuelans, Petkoff said, and we want a normal climate of relations between the government and the opposition.

The referendum was a critical test for Latin America's most outspoken antagonist of Washington and his goal of expanding the socialist experiment here. Chavez conceded defeat at a subdued news conference, saying he was determined to spare the country political tension.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish Spoken)

McCARTHY: I hope that we have put behind us the ways of violence and destabilization, Chavez said. The democracy of Venezuela is maturing and will continue to mature with every election, he said. But Chavez did not abandon his drive to overhaul the constitution and deepen what he calls popular power. He said the proposal isn't dead.

Mr. CHAVEZ: (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: For now, we can't do it - for now, he repeated to applause.

High-profile defections had strengthened the opposition in recent weeks. Among them was the former Chavez loyalist and defense minister, Raul Baduel. He stepped down last summer, and later condemned the constitutional package Chavez proposed as an undemocratic grab for power.

Mr. RAUL BADUEL (Former Defense Minister, Venezuela): (Spanish Spoken)

McCARTHY: The nature of the constitution does not permit one side or another to compromise it, the former Chavez ally said. It is a contract, he said, between the people and the state.

Venezuela's students have been the bulwark of opposition in recent months. Twenty-year-old Leonel Suarez, who is studying international relations, was simply glad to have stopped what he called Venezuela's headlong march toward a socialist state.

Mr. LIONEL SUAREZ (Student): (Spanish Spoken)

McCARTHY: What we have been seeing is a political structure that takes us backwards, he says, and makes us into a country like Cuba.

But Luis Chacon, a high school drama teacher and diehard Chavez supporter, said it is a distortion to call the president a dictator.

Mr. LUIS CHACON (High School Drama Teacher): (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: What dictator gives his people health care, education and social benefits? Chacon asked. Dictators want to keep their people in ignorance and sickness in order to control them, he said. But for the first time in my country, he added, someone has come with a heart and head to give the people their rights.

Despite yesterday's defeat, Chavez has five more years in office and still wields enormous power. His allies dominate the national assembly, the courts and the armed forces.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Caracas.

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, who lost an intensely fought referendum that would have allowed him to serve indefinitely, said Monday he may have reached too far.

Millions of Venezuelans went to the polls Sunday and by a margin of 51 to 49 turned down a constitutional reform package that would have allowed Chavez to serve as long as he wished. Supporters said the president would have deepened grassroots democracy, but a newly energized opposition said the country was hurtling toward dictatorship.

"I understand and accept that the proposal I made was quite profound and intense," he said after the results were announced shortly after midnight.

Opposition activists were ecstatic. Former presidential candidate Teodoro Petkoff said the ball was now in the court of Chavez, who had called those who failed to support him "traitors" and "CIA stooges."

"The country has sent the message that Chavez needs to set aside the insults, the grabbing and the idea that those who oppose him are imperialists or serpents or coup-mongers," Petkoff said.

"We are all Venezuelans, and we want a normal climate of relations between the government and the opposition," he said.

The referendum was a critical test for Chavez — Latin America's most outspoken antagonist of Washington — and his goal of expanding the socialist experiment.

Chavez conceded defeat at a subdued news conference, saying he was determined to spare the country from political tension. But he did not abandon his drive to overhaul the constitution and deepen what he calls "popular power." He said the proposal "isn't dead."

"For now, we can't do it. For now," he repeated to applause.

High-profile defections had strengthened the opposition in recent weeks. Among them was former Chavez loyalist and Defense Minister Raul Baduel. He stepped down this summer and later condemned the constitutional package Chavez proposed as an undemocratic grab for power.

"The nature of the Constitution does not permit one side or another to compromise it," Baduel said. "It is a contract ... between the people and the state."

Venezuela's students have been the bulwark of opposition in recent months. Leonel Suarez, 20, who is studying international relations, said he was simply glad to have stopped the clock on Venezuela's headlong march toward a socialist state.

"What we have been seeing is a political structure that takes us backwards ... and makes us into a country like Cuba," he told NPR.

From NPR's Julie McCarthy and The Associated Press

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