Voters Reject Chavez Plan for Constitutional Reform

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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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