Chavez meets rare opposition

Some loyalists speak out against Venezuelan president's referendum

December 02, 2007|By Oscar Avila | Oscar Avila,Chicago Tribune

CARACAS, Venezuela -- After nine years amassing power and stirring socialist movements across the hemisphere, President Hugo Chavez is finding that even his hero, the South American liberator Simon Bolivar, seems to want to rein him in.

Bolivar's own words are being employed by Chavez opponents to attack a referendum today through which the Venezuelan leader hopes to drastically expand presidential authority in his oil-rich nation. When a leader gets too much power, "that is where usurpation and tyranny originate," Bolivar warns in banners all over town.

For the first time, the charismatic and provocative Chavez, a former army colonel, is staring at an election defeat as even longtime loyalists on the left fear that he has gone too far in proposing constitutional changes that would let presidents be re-elected for life and rule by decree in emergency situations.

His prominent former defense minister, retired Gen. Raul Baduel, calls the measures a "coup d'etat." One of Chavez's two ex-wives has jumped ship on him. And several lawmakers from his ruling coalition are dissenting, even though they still support "The Process," as Chavez calls his socialist platform.

"I don't like to have to vote `no,' but I think we need to deepen our democracy. This doesn't do that," said Pastora Medina, a congresswoman and erstwhile Chavez enthusiast with the Fatherland for All party, in an interview. "Sometimes the president goes too far."

Chavez's call for a "socialist revolution" across the region, while causing friction with the U.S., has resonated among poor Venezuelans. It has helped him win election three times, survive a recall and earn voter approval for a previous overhaul of the constitution. His avid supporters also took to the streets to protest a short-lived army coup against him in 2002.

But Chavez's list of 69 initiatives is now trailing or only slightly ahead in most opinion polls after months of protests led by university students, including a peaceful rally Thursday that drew tens of thousands to the capital's streets.

Chavez still controls a government apparatus that can mobilize his loyal electoral base, which makes victory a realistic goal. At his latest rallies, Chavez has turned the vote into a referendum on himself instead of a judgment on measures that he barely mentions. And he has taken to calling his opponents "fascists" and dupes of the U.S.

When Chavez was elected to the presidency in 1998, his first priority was ending the U.S.-backed "neoliberal" economic model of free trade and privatized industries.

He implemented his vision of a "Bolivarian" socialist state. He moved to nationalize Venezuela's oil industry, expanded state funding to improve literacy and health, and forged close ties with left-leaning nations like Bolivia and Cuba and anti-U.S. leaders such as Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Chavez won re-election in December with 63 percent of the vote and, soon after, pushed these constitutional changes.

The packet, which voters must consider as a whole, includes sweeteners such as reducing the workday from 8 hours to 6 hours and creating pensions for workers such as taxi drivers and street vendors.

At the same time, Chavez wants to weaken the power of governors and mayors through the creation of "federal districts" whose leaders would be appointed by the president. He also wants to eliminate the autonomy of the Central Bank.

Opponents have warned that the referendum is the final step in Chavez's consolidation of power. By weakening the system of checks and balances while allowing indefinite re-election, Chavez would become president-for-life, they argue.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized a key measure that lets presidents rule by decree, saying Thursday that it "would jeopardize the protection of fundamental rights at times when they are most needed."

The awakening of an opposition that had previously been divided and lethargic appears to be a sign that Chavez has over-reached, said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank that specializes in Latin America.

Chavez had already faced dents in his popularity because his government has been unable to get a grip on a wave of violent crime and food shortages that have shoppers coming to blows over liters of milk.

A key dissenter has been the former defense minister, Baduel, because his years as a Chavez ally make it harder to cast him as a tool of the U.S. In 2002, he led the army's push to restore Chavez to power after the coup.

But now Chavez has called Baduel a traitor, the label he assigned to anyone who votes no.

"The people should be able to push their desires through a constitution," Baduel said last week. "No one should impose a constitution on the people."

Oscar Avila writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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