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Chavez loses constitutional vote

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071203/ap_on_re_la_am_ca/venezuela_constitution Chavez loses constitutional vote By FRANK BAJAK, Associated Press Writer 2 hours,
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 2007
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071203/ap_on_re_la_am_ca/venezuela_constitution

      Chavez loses constitutional vote

      By FRANK BAJAK, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 5
      minutes ago

      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
      going away!"

      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
      rights.

      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
      democratic leader.

      "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
      dictatorship here."

      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
      power."

      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
      government funds.

      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
      between sobs.

      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
      setback.

      "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
      interfered.

      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
      anthem.

      "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
      protests.

      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.
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