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NYT: For Venezuela, Tension Mounts With Close Vote

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  • Walter Lippmann
    THE NEW YORK TIMES December 3, 2007 For Venezuela, Tension Mounts With Close Vote By SIMON ROMERO Dec 2, 2007 10:02 PM CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 2 — Venezuela
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      THE NEW YORK TIMES
      December 3, 2007
      For Venezuela, Tension Mounts With Close Vote
      By SIMON ROMERO

      Dec 2, 2007 10:02 PM

      CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 2 — Venezuela was on edge Sunday night as voters
      awaited the outcome of a much-anticipated referendum that would give
      President Hugo Chávez sweeping new constitutional powers.

      Hours after the polls closed Sunday, the government still had not released
      official results, causing political leaders to speculate that the vote was
      too close to call.

      That would be a stunning development in a country where Mr. Chávez and his
      supporters control nearly all of the levers of power.

      “The result will be quarrelsome,” Vice President Jorge Rodriguez said in
      comments broadcast on national television.

      Both supporters and critics of the president pointed to exit polls in their
      favor, suggesting a contentious outcome to the vote. Electoral officials
      said official results could be released late Sunday evening or early Monday,
      after reports from polling stations around the country trickled in here.

      In the weeks leading up to the vote, members of previously splintered
      opposition movements joined disillusioned supporters of the president in an
      attempt to defeat the proposals, which would abolish term limits, allow Mr.
      Chávez to declare states of emergency for unlimited periods and increase the
      state’s role in the economy, among other measures.

      A defeat of the proposed constitutional overhaul would temporarily suspend
      Mr. Chávez’s socialist-inspired transformation of Venezuela, once a staunch
      ally of the United States that has become a leading nemesis of the Bush
      administration’s policies in the developing world. Under Mr. Chávez,
      Venezuela has taken the most profound leftward turn of any Latin American
      nation in decades.

      The streets here were unusually free of traffic on Sunday evening, adding to
      the tension. Supporters of Mr. Chávez gathered around the presidential
      palace downtown to await the results, as they have done in past elections.
      The occasional blast of fireworks from hillside slums broke the rare silence
      of this city.

      Unlike past elections here, this time the government did not invite
      observers from the Organization of American States or the European Union,
      opening itself to potential claims of fraud.

      The voting appeared to unfold largely without irregularities, though there
      were isolated reports of fraud and violence in parts of the country.

      The referendum followed several weeks of street protests and frenetic
      campaigning over the 69 amendments to the Constitution proposed by Mr.
      Chávez and his supporters. It caps a year of bold moves by the president,
      who forged a single Socialist party among his followers, forced a television
      network critical of the government off the public airwaves, and nationalized
      oil, telephone and electricity companies.

      In recent weeks, Mr. Chávez has adopted an increasingly confrontational tone
      with critics abroad, who have been multiplying even in friendly countries
      with moderate leftist governments like Brazil and Chile.

      In the days before the referendum, Mr. Chávez recalled his ambassador from
      Colombia and threatened to nationalize the Venezuelan operations of Spanish
      banks after Spain’s king told him to shut up during a meeting. Mr. Chávez
      said he would cut off oil exports to the United States in the event of
      American interference in the election on Sunday.

      The United States remains the largest buyer of Venezuela’s oil, despite
      deteriorating political ties, but this long commercial relationship is
      starting to change as Mr. Chávez increases exports of oil to China and other
      countries while gradually selling off the oil refineries owned by
      Venezuela’s government in the United States.

      Venezuela’s political opposition, normally divided among several small
      political parties, found common cause in calling on its members to vote
      against the amendments. An increasingly defiant student movement also
      protested here and in other large interior cities against the proposed
      charter.

      In a move that alarmed the opposition, electoral officials over the weekend
      revoked the observer credentials of Jorge Quiroga, a former president of
      Bolivia and an outspoken critic of Mr. Chávez. Mr. Quiroga accused security
      forces here of following him after his arrival in Caracas. “They’ve taken my
      credential but not my tongue,” Mr. Quiroga said.

      But Mr. Chávez, whose followers already control many powerful institutions —
      the National Assembly, the federal bureaucracy, the national oil company,
      the Supreme Court and all but a handful of state governments — relied on an
      unrivaled political machine to gather support for the measures.

      “The whole proposal is marvelous,” said Francis Veracierta, 52, a treasurer
      at a communal council here, one of thousands of local governing entities
      loyal to Mr. Chávez that he created this year. After awakening to predawn
      fireworks, she said she got in line at 6 a.m. to vote at a school in Petare,
      an area of sprawling hillside slums here.

      “The power is for us in the community,” said Ms. Veracierta, wearing a red
      shirt, red cap and belt with Che Guevara’s face on it. She said she credited
      Mr. Chávez’s government for giving her a $3,800 loan to start a small
      clothing business.

      But turnout in some areas was unexpectedly low, particularly in poor
      districts that are traditional bastions of loyalty for Mr. Chávez. Some of
      his supporters expressed concern that if they voted against the measures
      they might be retaliated against.

      There was no line in front of the voting center at the Cecilio Acosta school
      in Petare on Sunday morning, as a few dozen people who had already voted
      milled about the street. Some volunteers working the voting machines sat
      idle, waiting for more voters to arrive. Other voting centers in Petare had
      lines outside, but they were less than half a block long.

      “I’m impressed by the lack of voters,” said Ninoska González, 37, who sells
      cigarettes on the street. “This was full last year.” She described herself
      as a “Chavista” who voted for the president in last year’s presidential
      elections, but said she voted against his proposed changes on Sunday.

      “I don’t agree with some articles,” Ms. González said. She said she was most
      worried about the state taking control of private property. Asked about a
      measure to pay social security benefits to workers in the informal economy
      like her, she said, “That’s a lie.”

      Confusion persisted Sunday over the amendments, with one major complaint
      among the president’s supporters and critics being that they had too little
      time to study the proposals. Some measures were warmly received even by the
      president’s critics, however, like those prohibiting discrimination based on
      political beliefs and sexual orientation.

      Venezuela is struggling with the highest inflation rate in Latin America, at
      more than 16 percent. Farmers and ranchers complain that price controls
      prevent them from producing many basic products profitably, creating a
      flourishing black market for scarce items like milk, sugar and chicken.

      The uncertainty over Mr. Chávez’s reforms, meanwhile, has led to
      accelerating capital flight as rich Venezuelans and private companies rush
      to buy assets abroad denominated in dollars or euros. One of the reforms
      would shorten the work day to six hours, potentially hurting productivity.
      The currency, the bolívar, currently trades at about 6,100 to the dollar in
      street trading, compared with an official rate of 2,150.

      Venezuela’s state-controlled oil industry is also showing signs of strain,
      grappling with a purge of opposition management by Mr. Chávez and a
      retooling of the state oil company to focus on social welfare projects while
      aging oil fields need maintenance.

      Petróleos de Venezuela, the state oil company, says it produces 3.3 million
      barrels a day, but OPEC places its output at just 2.4 million barrels. And
      private economists estimate that a third of oil production goes to meet
      domestic consumption, which is surging thanks to a subsidy that keeps
      gasoline prices at about seven cents a gallon.

      Still, Mr. Chávez already has unprecedented discretionary control over
      Venezuela’s oil revenues, valued at more than $60 billion a year. “Because
      of its oil, Venezuela has global reach in OPEC and the rest of Latin
      America,” said Kenneth R. Maxwell, a professor of Latin American history at
      Harvard University.

      Jens Erik Gould contributed reporting.
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