CARACAS, Venezuela -- The defection of Venezuela's former military chief coupled with massive protests that have turned violent have given President Hugo Chavez a potentially explosive mixture to worry about as he seeks to expand his power through constitutional changes.
But the rudderless political opposition has yet to demonstrate it can galvanize the unexpected upheaval into a united front capable of defeating a Dec. 2 referendum on proposed amendments.
University students have taken the lead in protests that have drawn tens of thousands _ sidelining political parties discredited by several failed attempts to topple Chavez during his eight years in office.
And opposition leaders seem wary of throwing their support behind retired Gen. Raul Baduel, a former defense minister who turned his back on Chavez this week to start a campaign against the constitutional reforms. Venezuela's opposition has rushed to support defectors before _ only to see them return to the Chavez fold once it became clear he would keep the upper hand.
Chavez is "worried, and he's got reasons to be worried because this could build and he's smart enough to realize that," said Michael Shifter at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. But he added that it's "very unlikely that Chavez is going to lose at the ballot box because the opposition is still weak, divided and has a hard time coming up with a common strategy."
Chavez and his allies are comparing the political atmosphere to agitation in 2002 and 2003 that culminated with a botched military rebellion and nationwide strike. The unrest left the opposition demoralized and allowed Chavez to consolidate his power over the oil industry and the military.
But it was Baduel who played a major role in returning Chavez to power during the 2002 coup, and his defection raised the spector of military discontent. Acknowledging Baduel's words were like "gasoline," Chavez gathered his military leaders this week to evaluate their possible impact.
On Friday, however, Chavez appeared unconcerned during a visit to Chile for a summit of Latin America leaders _ even breaking into song when asked about the unrest back home.
"I'm no gold coin that everyone likes, that's the way I was born and that's the way I am, if they don't love me, I don't care," Chavez sang.
He condemned his opponents for resorting to "fascist violence" and accused them of seeking help from Washington and Venezuela's military.
"I urge the people of the right not to go down the fascist path," Chavez told state television from Santiago, Chile. "They generally take the path of fascist violence and confront the laws and the people, and they are always looking to the Pentagon, high-ranking generals."
At issue are 69 constitutional amendments that would let Chavez run for re-election indefinitely, create provinces governed by federally appointed officials and give the government control over the Central Bank.
Supporters say the reforms are a novel means of giving neighborhood-based "communal councils" greater decision-making power as Chavez steers the oil-rich country toward what he calls "21st-century Socialism."
Opponents, including human rights groups and the Roman Catholic Church, say Chavez is seeking to amass power. They have condemned proposed changes would allow authorities to detain citizens without charge and censor the media during a state of emergency.
The recent upheaval has complicated what was expected to be a smooth road toward the December referendum, which Chavez, with widespread support among the poor, is expected to win easily.
New violence erupted briefly Friday in the southwestern city of Merida. Four police officers were injured when gunshots rang out during a melee involving students opposed to the government, police and other "unidentified" protesters, said Merida Police Sgt. Alexander Ramirez.
University leaders have accused the government of arming gunmen who opened fire on students returning from a peaceful march Wednesday. At least eight people were injured, including two students by gunfire, officials said.
Associated Press photographers saw at least four gunmen _ their faces covered by ski masks or T-shirts _ firing handguns at the government opponents at the Central University of Venezuela, a hotbed of opposition to Chavez.
Protests have vowed to continue despite security crackdowns.
Opposition parties are split on how to campaign against the amendments. While most are urging supporters to vote "no," others are calling for a boycott.