Chavez loses constitutional vote
By FRANK BAJAK, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 5
CARACAS, Venezuela - Humbled by his first electoral
defeat ever, President Hugo Chavez said Monday he may
have been too ambitious in asking voters to let him
stand indefinitely for re-election and endorse a huge
leap to a socialist state.
"I understand and accept that the proposal I made was
quite profound and intense," he said after voters
narrowly rejected the sweeping constitutional reforms
by 51 percent to 49 percent.
Opposition activists were ecstatic as the results were
announced shortly after midnight with 88 percent of
the vote counted, the trend was declared irreversible
by elections council chief Tibisay Lucena.
Some shed tears. Others began chanting: "And now he's
Without the overhaul, Chavez will be barred from
running again in 2012.
Foes of the reform effort including Roman Catholic
leaders, media freedom groups, human rights groups and
prominent business leaders said it would have
granted Chavez unchecked power and imperiled basic
Chavez told reporters at the presidential palace that
the outcome of Sunday's balloting had taught him that
"Venezuelan democracy is maturing." His respect for
the verdict, he asserted, proves he is a true
"From this moment on, let's be calm," he proposed,
asking for no more street violence like the clashes
that marred pre-vote protests. "There is no
A senior U.S. official hailed Chavez's referendum
defeat Monday as a victory for the country's citizens
who want to preserve democracy and prevent Chavez from
having unchecked power.
"We felt that this referendum would make Chavez
president for life, and that's not ever a welcome
development," U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas
Burns told reporters in Singapore. "In a country that
wants to be a democracy, the people spoke, and the
people spoke for democracy and against unlimited
Chavez, who was briefly ousted in a failed 2002 coup,
blamed the loss on low turnout among the very
supporters who re-elected him a year ago with 63
percent of the vote.
Seven in 10 eligible voters cast ballots then. This
time it was just 56 percent.
The defeated reform package would have created new
types of communal property, let Chavez handpick local
leaders under a redrawn political map and suspended
civil liberties during extended states of emergency.
Other changes would have shortened the workday from
eight hours to six, created a social security fund for
millions of informal laborers and promoted communal
councils where residents decide how to spend
Nelly Hernandez, a 37-year-old street vendor, cried as
she wandered outside the presidential palace early
Monday amid broken beer bottles as government workers
took apart a stage mounted earlier for a victory fete.
"It's difficult to accept this, but Chavez has not
abandoned us, he'll still be there for us," she said
A close ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro, Chavez has
redistributed more oil wealth than past Venezuelan
leaders, and also has aided Latin American allies
including Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua that have
followed Venezuela's turn to the left.
"He is a man who feels for the people, a man who has
suffered, a man who comes from below," Carlos Orlando
Vega, a 47-year-old carpenter's assistant, said
outside a polling station in a Caracas slum on Sunday.
Vega is among tens of thousands of Venezuelans who,
under Chavez, have new government-provided homes.
Chavez urged calm and restraint after his Sunday
"I wouldn't have wanted that Pyrrhic victory," he
said, suggesting a small margin wouldn't have been
enough of a mandate.
Tensions surged in the weeks ahead of Sunday's vote,
with university students leading protests and
occasionally clashing with police and Chavista groups.
Chavez had warned opponents against inciting violence
before the vote, and threatened to cut off oil exports
to the United States if the Bush administration
Chavez, 53, also suffered some high-profile defections
by political allies, including former defense minister
Gen. Raul Baduel.
Early Monday, Baduel reminded fellow Venezuelans that
Chavez still wields special decree powers thanks to a
pliant National Assembly packed with his supporters.
"These results can't be recognized as a victory,"
Baduel told reporters,
Baduel, who as defense minister helped Chavez turn
back the 2002 putsch, said Venezuela can only be
properly united by convening a popularly elected
assembly to rewrite its constitution.
Chavez has progressively steamrolled a fractured
opposition since he was first elected in 1998, and his
allies now control most elected posts.
At opposition headquarters in an affluent east Caracas
district, jubilant Chavez foes sang the national
"This reform was about democracy or totalitarian
socialism, and democracy won," said opposition leader
Leopoldo Lopez said.
"At least now we have the guarantee that Chavez will
leave power," said Valeria Aguirre, a 22-year-old
student who had braved tear gas during street
Lucena, the electoral agency chief, called the vote
"the calmest we've had in the last 10 years."
All was reported calm during Sunday's voting but 45
people were detained, most for committing
ballot-related crimes like "destroying electoral
materials," said Gen. Jesus Gonzalez, chief of a
military command overseeing security.
Associated Press writers Ian James, Edison Lopez,
Fabiola Sanchez, Jorge Rueda, Christopher Toothaker
and Sandra Sierra contributed to this report.