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Chavez Opposition Swells Ahead of Referendum


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is hoping to gain more power when his country goes to the polls this weekend. The vote will determine whether to change the constitution. Up until now, support for Chavez has been rock solid through one election and referendum after another. But Sunday's referendum has created a groundswell of opposition. Today, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets to voice their fear of a growing dictatorship.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas that even some of the president's most ardent supporters have turned on him.

(Soundbite of music)

JUAN FORERO: Gregorian chants might not be the first you'd relate with tropical, salsa-crazed Venezuela. But many people in this country know that one of the best known heroes of President Hugo Chavez's self-styled socialist revolution, former Defense Minister Raul Baduel, cannot work without the music being piped into his office.

Venezuelans also know he was a long-time friend and ally of President Chavez. So close in fact that he helped rolled back a 2002 coup that briefly overthrew Chavez. But now, Chavez says, Baduel is a traitor. Because he's urging Venezuelans to roundly reject a broad constitutional reform that goes up for a vote on Sunday.

Mr. RAUL BADUEL (Former Venezuelan Defense Minister): (Through translator) If it's approved, the reform would be a coup de etat against the constitution. We're giving discretional power to one person to make big decisions about the direction our country should take.

FORERO: Just a few weeks ago, it appeared a win by Chavez was mere certain. Now, polls show the advantage he had has evaporated. Baduel's defection may have most on the government. But there have been others who've opposed the reforms, like Marisabel Rodriguez, the president's ex-wife, and Ismael Garcia, head of the influential party that had been aligned with Chavez. Venezuelans seem to be listening.

(Soundbite of crowd)

FORERO: At a government market, people lined up for cheap food, basics hard to find elsewhere. It highlights the problem under Venezuela's increasingly state-controlled economy - the lack of eggs, milk and other basic foodstuff.

Rosalina Gonzales(ph), standing in line, has supported Chavez. But now, she's leaning against the referendum. She's tired of food shortages. She especially doesn't like that the reforms would allow the president to run for office indefinitely.

Ms. ROSALINA GONZALES: (Through translator) I think he has to give other people a chance. They could be good people. But they should get the opportunity.

FORERO: Chavez seems fully aware of the challenges he's facing. The president is on an all-out campaign schedule.

(Soundbite of Hugo Chavez singing)

FORERO: That was the president singing a love song and then celebrating with hundreds of poor mothers bussed to a political rally. He's also taking his campaign to television. On the best-known program on government TV "The Razor," he told host Mario Silva that the reform gives more power to the people and dismantles the old elite order.

To be sure, many Venezuelans support Chavez, especially the poor masses who benefited from social programs. In coastal Sucre estate in the east, once a stronghold for Chavez, a group of women sat in a park waiting to go to Caracas and attend a pro-government rally.

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: Music blares from loud speakers nearby, urging people to vote si in the reform.

Fidelina Gomez(ph) says the government would bus her and the others to the capital, feed and house them, and drive them back. She's glad to go. She strongly supports the reform.

Ms. FIDELINA GOMEZ: (Through translator) We approve of it. What we have now, we didn't have before. We have lots of benefits.

FORERO: But Sucre, which last year overwhelmingly voted to reelect Chavez, also is home to another popular politician, a former Chavez supporter. Like Baduel, he helped thwart opposition efforts to oust Chavez - Governor Ramon Martinez.

Now he's saying Venezuelans should vote no. Martinez says the reforms would supplant him and other governors, giving the president the power to name governors and create new states.

Governor RAMON MARTINEZ (Sucre, Venezuela): (Through translator) The president's proposal sidesteps his teeming colleagues.

FORERO: And Martinez says it's a proposal he has pledged to make sure won't succeed.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Cumana, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juan Forero