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Chavez seeks sweeping changes in vote

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071202/ap_on_re_la_am_ca/venezuela_constitution Chavez seeks sweeping changes in vote By IAN JAMES, Associated Press Writer 2
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071202/ap_on_re_la_am_ca/venezuela_constitution

      Chavez seeks sweeping changes in vote

      By IAN JAMES, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 17
      minutes ago

      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
      predict.

      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
      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."

      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
      threat."

      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
      world."

      Chavez often makes such accusations, which U.S.
      officials deny.

      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
      memory.

      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
      beyond.

      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
      government funds.

      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
      protesters.

      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
      past votes.

      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
      old.

      ___

      Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker, Sandra
      Sierra and Edison Lopez contributed to this report.
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