Venezuela's vote Sunday could make or break Hugo Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela — In a vote with huge ramifications, Venezuelans will decide Sunday whether to give President Hugo Chavez the chance to remain in power indefinitely.

Approving Chavez's proposal to scrap term limits would give fresh momentum to his socialist revolution. Defeating the measure would weaken his political legitimacy, undermining his grand ambitions at home and abroad.

Polls indicate that the result is too close to call, although Chavez seems a slight favorite since he's marshaled the entire machinery of government behind his bid to keep power past the scheduled end of his term in 2013.

Undecided Venezuelans such as Jesus Infante, a 23-year-old clothing store salesman, will spell the difference.

"Chavez has done a lot of good things for the poor, but I don't like how he is always getting into fights with other foreign leaders," Infante said. "I haven't heard a convincing argument yet by either side."

Chavez has become a 21st Century populist strongman during his 10 years as president.

He has used a windfall from high oil prices to shower billions of dollars on Venezuela's downtrodden while managing the economy and marginalizing his critics.

Chavez also has forged an anti-U.S. bloc, sending billions of dollars to Cuba, Bolivia and other like-minded nations in Latin America that oppose free trade and capitalism.

Sunday's election is being closely watched from Washington to Havana to Brasilia.

"What happens in Venezuela will affect what happens in Bolivia, El Salvador, Peru, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatemala, Argentina and elsewhere in the hemisphere," said Jorge Quiroga, a former Bolivian president and a Chavez critic, in an interview. "You can plot the matrix: The stronger Chavez is at home, the more meddlesome he is abroad. Latin America has never seen a man as politically talented, as wildly ambitious and as incredibly well-funded trying to establish a project like he's trying to do in the hemisphere."

Chavez's behavior in Venezuela and beyond worries U.S. policymakers. Since the U.S. buys most of Venezuela's oil, however, American consumers ironically have been financing a good portion of his government's anti-U.S. activities.

Chavez is trying to join two leftist allies — Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Bolivia's Evo Morales — in winning public approval to extend his time in office.

This is Chavez's second attempt to be given the right to remain in power as long as he wins elections. In December 2007, Venezuelans narrowly defeated his first campaign, which sought 69 changes to the constitution. It was the only national election that he's lost.

Many previous Chavez voters stayed home rather than cast a ballot against the 2007 measure. There are roughly 16.7 million registered voters in Venezuela, and voting isn't mandatory as it is in other Latin American countries.

This year, Chavez has mounted an aggressive campaign to make sure that his supporters return to the fold.

Analysts think that Chavez is holding the latest referendum now because he thinks that his popularity is about to wane as the Venezuelan economy gets pummeled by low global oil prices and by the U.S. economic slowdown and rising prices within Venezuela.

Asdrubal Oliveros, a Caracas-based economic consultant, is predicting stagflation in 2009. He expects that growth will drop from 4.9 percent in 2008 to 0.5 percent in 2009 while inflation will rise from 31 percent to 40 percent. Venezuela already has Latin America's highest inflation rate.

As president, Chavez has halved poverty, but violent crime is rising and shortages of food and other basic goods persist. Toilet paper disappeared for store shelves for several days last week.

The referendum asks voters to mark "si" or "no" whether they favor abolishing term limits not only for Chavez but all elected officials.

"He has an obsession about staying in power," said Carlos Vecchio, a Chavez critic from Caracas who heads a coalition of opposition groups called Comando Angostura.

Chavez seems to be taking no chances that he'll lose again.

State workers have been leaving their jobs to go door to door in slum neighborhoods. "Si" billboards and posters are up throughout Caracas, even alongside the highway that connects inland Caracas to the international airport.

While some opposition ads ran on government television stations in 2007, none do now.

Thugs allied with the government have roughed up opponents. Chavez supporters have occupied Metro Caracas City Hall rather, forcing the newly elected opposition mayor to work elsewhere.

Government officials have denied eight march permits to referendum opponents while freely granting them to referendum supporters.

Both sides have hurled insults at the other, as has been typical during political campaigns during the polarized Chavez years.

The president has lambasted his opponents as lackeys of the U.S., accusing them of "lies" and "fear-mongering."

The opposition has broadcast television ads telling viewers to say no to arbitrary layoffs and homeless children in the street.

Chavez opponents say they'll staff all of the more than 11,000 voting precincts throughout Venezuela in an effort to prevent government officials from engaging in vote fraud.

Chavez supporters have become a ubiquitous presence with their red t-shirts.

Asked why they support the president, they cite government anti-poverty programs that dispense food, health care and education, often with the assistance of Cuban teachers and doctors.

"They donated a hearing aid for my 12-year-old son," said Angie Medina, 27.

Felix Canache, a 55-year-old worker for a cement company nationalized by the government, said a government program allowed his son to get a high school degree and become an electrician.

"This country would fall into chaos without Chavez," said Pedro Romero, a 47-year-old copy machine repairman.

University student leaders have formed the vanguard of public opposition. They turned out tens of thousands of Chavez opponents for a street protest in the heart of Caracas eight days before the referendum.

"No is no," read one popular t-shirt, a reference to voters having already rejected Chavez's proposal in December 2007.

Another t-shirt mocked Chavez by printing an 1819 quotation from Simon Bolivar, the 19th century Venezuelan independence leader who's the president's hero.

"Nothing is as dangerous as letting the same citizen remain in power for a long time," read the Bolivar quote.

"I also want to be president," another t-shirt taunted.

Betty Duran, a 41-year-old school bus driver, was among the marchers.

"I don't want Venezuela to become another Cuba," Duran said. "That's what Chavez wants."


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