Chavez Future Lies in Hands of Venezuelan Voters Venezuelans vote Sunday on a slate of constitutional reforms that would give President Hugo Chavez greater powers and lift limits on presidential terms. Opponents say this is a power grab by an authoritarian leader. Polls suggest the referendum may be defeated.
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Chavez Future Lies in Hands of Venezuelan Voters

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Chavez Future Lies in Hands of Venezuelan Voters

Chavez Future Lies in Hands of Venezuelan Voters

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Venezuelans are going to the polls today, too. They're voting on constitutional changes that would vastly expand the powers of President Hugo Chavez. Thousands of supporters staged raucous finish to the si, or yes, campaign.

(Soundbite of whistling)

HANSEN: But the race between the si and no voters is razor-close. And the air is charged with uncertainty over whether the country could be on the verge of getting a constitutional overhaul that could allow President Chavez nearly unfettered powers.

NPR's Julie McCarthy is on the line from Caracas.

Julie, first of all, what would revisions to the constitution do?

JULIE McCARTHY: Well, there's 69 of them. And they run along three basic lines: increased political power for the president, increased economic power and territorial control that would be given to the president. And they also advance the country's socialist tilt. And that, of course, has fed the fears of opponents who say Chavez is looking to remake Venezuela in the mold of Cuba. But it also fuels the dreams of a lot of his supporters who say he's just producing a more equitable state.

But the most controversial reform, Liane, is this elimination of restrictions on presidential term limits, which would remove any hurdle for Chavez to be reelected indefinitely.

HANSEN: Is this referendum going to pass?

McCARTHY: Well, you know, there are some sweeteners like cutting the workday from eight hours to six hours. That's very popular here. But you've got some high-profile defections that have made the vote very, very hard to predict. Chavez's own former defense minister, General Baduel, condemned the reforms as an undemocratic power grab.

And economist Luis Vicente Leon, who is a leading pollster here with the Venezuelan polling firm, Datanalisis, says that up until recently, Chavez really hasn't manage to consolidate these reforms with a large majority. And the constitutional revisions are troubling enough to make money, of his own supporters consider rejecting it.

But Leon says that Chavez has done a very smart thing. He's made this referendum about himself.

Mr. LUIS VICENTE LEON (Pollster, Datanalisis): He said to the people, if you all know you are voting against the revolution, against Chavez. You are kicking me out of power, and you are going to lose almost everything. And well, the strategy of Chavez, it's, you know, is working.

McCARTHY: So those Chavistas who feel that a vote against President Chavez would amount to be a betrayal of their loyalty to him. They simply abstain. And that could help the opposition. And a no-victory here would represent his first real political defeat in nine years.

HANSEN: So if this vote is so close, would he decide to accept the result? Could there be violence?

McCARTHY: Well, most people seem to expect that this vote is going to go off without violence. But we have seen some bloody confrontations between university students and Chavez supporters in recent months. Chavez himself is charging up his own rhetoric in the final days of the campaign. He's branding his opponents CIA stooges and invoking rumors of possible sabotage of the referendum by the United States.

The opposition has worked to point out that there is a growing distance between Chavez and the rest of the world. And here is one university student leader Frank Calvinio(ph).

Mr. FRANK CALVINIO (Student Leader): Venezuela is never going to feel okay. It's been a poor country but we always have dignity. And we are losing that. We are losing that because we have a head of the state that is ashamed. And the guy is ashamed here, and he's ashamed everywhere.

HANSEN: Julie, how is this vote today likely to affect relations with the United States and Latin America?

McCARTHY: Well, the more Chavez consolidates power, the more closely Washington watches. And if he wins this latest bid to enhance and prolong his presidency, there are potentially huge consequences for United States. The U.S. gets 12 percent of its oil from Venezuela, which he periodically threatens to shut off. And the energy politics is now dominating the political agenda of South America. And Venezuela is at the center of that debate. So there's a lot riding on today's election.

HANSEN: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Caracas, Venezuela.

Julie, thank you.

McCARTHY: Thank you.

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