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Tension mounts as Venezuelans prepare for today's vote

Constitutional changes put to referendum

'Yes, with Chavez' and 'No' in reference to the referendum on changes to the constitution was painted across from a Caracas eatery where patrons waited for breakfast yesterday. "Yes, with Chavez" and "No" in reference to the referendum on changes to the constitution was painted across from a Caracas eatery where patrons waited for breakfast yesterday. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Ian James
Associated Press / December 2, 2007

CARACAS - President Hugo Chávez faces his stiffest challenge in years today as voters decide whether to approve constitutional changes that would greatly expand his powers and let him seek reelection for decades to come.

An emboldened opposition and recent violent clashes in street protests point to a potentially volatile dispute if the vote is close.

Chávez has warned opponents that he will not tolerate attempts to stir up violence and threatened to cut off oil exports to the United States if Washington interferes. The South American country is a major supplier to the United States, which is the number one buyer of Venezuelan oil.

"In the case of an aggression by the United States government, we wouldn't send any more oil to that country," Chávez told reporters yesterday. "Forget about our oil."

Chávez, who has become Latin America's most outspoken antagonist of Washington since he was first elected in 1998, calls the constitutional overhaul vital to making Venezuela a socialist state. He labels those who resist it pawns of President Bush.

"Anyone who votes 'No' is voting for George W. Bush," Chávez shouted to a sea of supporters Friday. "Our true enemy is the US empire, and on Sunday, Dec. 2, we're going to give another knockout to Bush."

While the Venezuelan government touts polls showing Chávez ahead, other surveys cited by the opposition indicated strong resistance - which would be a change for a leader who easily won reelection last year with 63 percent of the vote.

Pollster Luis Vicente Leon said tracking polls by his firm Datanalisis in the past week showed that the vote was too close to predict. Which side wins will depend largely on turnout among Chávez's supporters and opponents, he said.

"If he wins by a very small margin, that's a scenario filled with conflict," Leon said. "In a country where there are high levels of mistrust between the camps, it's obvious the opposition . . . would think it was fraud."

Chávez has sought to capitalize on his personal popularity. He is seen by many supporters as a champion of the poor who has redistributed more oil wealth than any other leader in memory.

Opponents - including Roman Catholic leaders, press freedom groups, human rights groups, and prominent business leaders - fear the reforms would grant Chávez unchecked power and threaten basic rights.

The changes would extend presidential terms from six to seven years, create new forms of communal property, and let Chávez seek reelection in 2012 and beyond.

They would also grant Chávez direct control over the Central Bank, allow his government to detain citizens without charge during a state of emergency, and empower the president to redraw the country's political map and handpick provincial and municipal leaders.

Many Chávez supporters say he needs more time in office to consolidate his unique brand of "21st century socialism," and they praise other proposed changes such as shortening the workday from eight hours to six, creating a social security fund for millions of informal laborers, and promoting communal councils where residents decide how to spend government funds.

Tensions have risen in recent weeks as university students have led protests and at times clashed with police and Chávista groups. One man was shot dead Monday while trying to get through a road blocked by protesters.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States hopes the referendum will be "a free and fair contest."

The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington protested McCormack's remarks, saying they "are aimed at generating doubts" ahead of the vote.

The embassy said it wanted to "alert the international community about actions that some undemocratic sectors could undertake by failing to concede the final results of the referendum."

Chávez accused his opponents of plotting to discredit what he says will be a legitimate and clear victory for him at the polls.

The opposition has called for close monitoring of an outcome they predict will be close.

Opposition leader Manuel Rosales, governor of Zulia state, recalled before a crowd of supporters Friday night that he conceded defeat in the 2006 presidential race - and urged Chávez to do the same and "recognize the will of the people."

Some 140,000 soldiers and reservists were to be posted during the vote, the Defense Ministry said.

About 100 electoral observers from 39 countries in Latin America, Europe, and the United States will be on hand, plus hundreds of Venezuelan observers, according to the National Electoral Council.

Yet, absent this time are monitors from the Organization of American States and the European Union, which have overseen past votes.

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