November 10, 2007
Despite protests, President Hugo Chávez is expected to have his constitutional changes, which would eliminate term limits, approved by voters on Dec. 2.
The defection of a former military chief and large protests that have turned violent have given President Hugo Chávez a potentially explosive mixture to worry about as he seeks constitutional changes that would expand his power.
But analysts say government opponents -- university students, political parties and retired Gen. Raúl Baduel, Chávez's former defense minister who announced a campaign against the proposed changes in a speech Monday -- are far from establishing a united front capable of derailing or defeating a Dec. 2 vote on the amendments.
''He's 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.
However, ''it's very unlikely that Chávez is going to lose at the ballot box,'' Shifter said, ``because the opposition is still weak, divided and has a hard time coming up with a common strategy.''
Chávez and his allies are comparing the current political atmosphere to agitation in 2002 and 2003 that culminated with a military rebellion and a devastating oil strike. Both tactics failed to oust Chávez, and the former lieutenant colonel is vowing to steamroll his foes at the ballot box -- just as he has done ever since he was first elected in 1998.
''Nobody is going to stop me,'' he thundered during a campaign rally this week.
In recent days, demonstrations led by the university students have spread from Venezuela's capital to several other major cities and occasionally led to clashes between protesters, government supporters and police.
Eight people were injured on Wednesday after a peaceful march, including two students wounded by gunfire. Associated Press photographers saw at least four gunmen -- their faces covered by ski masks or T-shirts -- firing handguns at protesters on the Central University of Venezuela campus.
More violence erupted Friday in the southwestern city of Mérida, where police Sgt. Alexander Ramírez said four officers suffered gunshot wounds in a melee involving students, police and unidentified protesters. Ramírez could not confirm a report by Globovisión TV that two students were also hurt.
Chávez accused his opponents of resorting to ''fascist violence'' and seeking help from Washington and Venezuela's military. But he did not respond to allegations that his government armed the gunmen who attacked protesters.
Organizers vowed more demonstrations ahead of the December vote, when Venezuelans will decide on some 69 constitutional amendments that were overwhelmingly approved last week in a National Assembly dominated by Chávez's allies.
Among other things, the proposals would eliminate presidential term limits, make it harder to trigger a presidential recall vote, create provinces governed by federal appointees and give the government control over the Central Bank.
Human-rights groups, the Roman Catholic Church and other critics say Chávez is seeking the changes in order to consolidate power. They warn that other amendments allowing authorities to detain citizens without charge and censor the media during a state of emergency would violate civil liberties.
Chávez's backers say the reforms are a novel means of giving power to the people through neighborhood-based assemblies, as he steers this oil-rich South American country toward what he calls ``21st-century socialism.''