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Venezuelans vote to end term limits

Chávez can run for president again in 2012

By Niko Price
Associated Press / February 16, 2009
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CARACAS - President Hugo Chávez won a referendum to eliminate term limits yesterday, paving the way for him to run again in 2012 - and beyond - and push through his vision of a socialist Venezuela.

Fireworks exploded in the sky and caravans of supporters celebrated in the streets, waving red flags and honking horns.

With 94 percent of the vote counted, 54 percent had voted in favor of the constitutional amendment, National Electoral Council chief Tibisay Lucena announced. Forty-six percent had voted against the measure to eliminate term limits on all public officials, too few to make up the distance with the remaining votes.

"Today we opened wide the gates of the future. Venezuela will not return to its past of indignity," Chávez proclaimed after singing the national anthem from the balcony of his Miraflores palace.

Voters on both sides said their decision was crucial to the future of Venezuela, a deeply polarized country where Chávez has spent a tumultuous decade in power channeling tremendous oil wealth into combating gaping social inequality.

The recorded blare of bugles jarred Venezuelans awake before dawn, and long lines formed even before the polls opened at 6 a.m. Information Minister Jesse Chacon projected turnout as high as 70 percent.

People voting "yes" said Chávez has given poor Venezuelans cheap food, free education, and quality healthcare, and empowered them with a discourse of class struggle after decades of US-backed governments that favored the rich. No successor has emerged, and voters said they worry their gains will vanish if Chávez leaves office.

"If Chávez loses, his social achievements will all disappear," said Richard Mijares, a 40-year-old secretary.

People voting "no" said Chávez already has far too much power, with the courts, the legislature and the election council all under his influence. Removing the 12-year presidential term limit he pushed through in a 1999 referendum, they said, would make him unstoppable.

"If he wins he'll be unleashed and he'll make us like Cuba, because that's what he really wants," said Adriana Hernandez, a 19-year-old engineering student. "He'll create laws by decree, and go after private property."

Chávez took office in 1999 and won support for a new constitution the same year that allowed the president to serve two six-year terms, barring him from the 2012 elections. Sunday's vote was his second attempt to change that. Voters rejected a broader referendum in December 2007.

Venezuela's leftist allies in Latin America have followed the model. Ecuador pushed through a new constitution in September and Bolivia did so in January. Both loosened rules on presidential reelection. Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas also plan to propose an amendment that would let Daniel Ortega run for another consecutive term.

Venezuela has seen 15 elections or referendums in Chávez's decade, which Chávez supporters say proves his dedication to democracy and which supporters call tiresome.

Chávez argued that he needs more time to complete Venezuela's transition to socialism - a process he has said could take another decade or more. He says his "little change" deepens democracy by giving voters more options.

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