Chavez seeks sweeping changes in vote
By IAN JAMES, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 17
CARACAS, Venezuela - President Hugo Chavez would take
on expanded powers and no longer face term limits
under sweeping constitutional changes being considered
by Venezuelans Sunday in a contentious vote that has
raised tensions in South America's top oil exporter.
An emboldened opposition and recent violent clashes
involving protesters point to a potentially volatile
dispute if the vote is close, as some pollsters
Lines snaked outside polling stations as voting began.
Voters were awakened in Caracas by fireworks exploding
in the pre-dawn sky and reveille blaring from speakers
mounted on cruising trucks.
"This is transcendental day for Venezuela," voter Raul
Perez said, without revealing whether he was voting
"yes" or "no."
Chavez has warned opponents he will not tolerate
attempts to stir up violence, and threatened to cut
off oil exports to the U.S. if Washington interferes.
His country is a major supplier to the United States,
which in turn is the No. 1 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," Chavez told reporters Saturday. "Forget
about our oil."
Chavez, 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 U.S. President George W. Bush.
While the Venezuelan government touts polls showing
Chavez ahead, other surveys cited by the opposition
indicate strong resistance which would be a change
for a leader who easily won re-election last year with
63 percent of the vote.
Pollster Luis Vicente Leon said tracking polls by his
firm Datanalisis in the past week show the vote is too
close to predict. Which side wins will depend largely
on turnout among Chavez's supporters and opponents, he
"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
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean
McCormack said the United States hopes the referendum
will be "a free and fair contest."
Speaking to reporters Saturday, Chavez accused the
U.S. government of plotting to discredit what he says
will be a legitimate victory for him at the polls.
"They are preparing to disavow the results, so we hope
the popular will is respected, whatever it is," Chavez
said. "The government of the United States is a
Chavez thanked his ally, Nicaraguan President Daniel
Ortega, for recently "alerting the world to the plan
Bush's government has to kill the president of
Venezuela." He didn't offer specifics but warned that
any assassination attempt would lead to "events that
aren't very good for the United States or for the
Chavez often makes such accusations, which U.S.
The socialist leader has sought to capitalize on his
personal popularity ahead of the vote. He is seen by
many supporters as a champion of the poor who has
redistributed more oil wealth than any other leader in
Opponents including Roman Catholic leaders, press
freedom groups, human rights groups and prominent
business leaders fear the reforms would grant Chavez
unchecked power and threaten basic rights.
The changes would create new forms of communal
property, extend presidential terms from six to seven
years and let Chavez seek re-election in 2012 and
They would also grant Chavez control over the Central
Bank, allow his government to detain citizens without
charge during a state of emergency, and empower him to
redraw the country's political map and handpick
provincial and municipal leaders.
Many Chavez 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
Tensions have surged in recent weeks as university
students led protests and occasionally clashed with
police and Chavista groups. One man was shot dead
Monday while trying to get through a road blocked by
The opposition has called for close monitoring of an
outcome they predict will be close.
Some 140,000 soldiers and reservists were posted for
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.
Absent this time are the Organization of American
States and the European Union, which have monitored
Chavez, 53, says he will stay in power only as long as
Venezuelans keep re-electing him and adds that might
be for life.
"If God gives me life and help," Chavez told
supporters Friday, "I will be at the head of the
government until 2050!" when he would be 95 years
Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker, Sandra
Sierra and Edison Lopez contributed to this report.