CASTO OCANDO / CASEY WOODS
December 01, 2007
CARACAS -- President Hugo Chávez's supporters filled the streets of the Venezuelan capital by the tens of thousands Friday as they closed a campaign to approve controversial constitutional reforms in a vote Sunday, but the latest poll showed a growing margin for a ''no'' vote.
The swing toward ''no'' came as Chávez critics from Caracas to Miami, who had planned to abstain out of fear of election fraud, increasingly said they have decided to vote. Many have been energized by student marches against the reforms over the past several weeks.
Just as energized were Chávez supporters, who filled a section of central Caracas Friday to shout ``Sí!''to reforms that would expand the leftist president's already vast powers and entrench his ``21st Century Socialism.''
''Chávez is the only president who has been worried about people like me,'' said Berta Almeyda, 53, who, like tens of thousands of other Chávez supporters, was wearing fire-engine red ``Sí''T-shirts.
But the latest poll, taken Monday through Thursday by Venezuela's Hinterlaces firm, showed the ''no'' vote winning by 6 percentage points in the closest scenario, and 21 points in the most lopsided, depending largely on turnout.
Hinterlaces said 80 percent of those polled said they would vote on Sunday for sure -- a high turnout is expected to favor Chávez's opposition -- while 11 percent said they probably would vote and 6 percent said they would abstain. The company polled 1,642 voters in 15 states around the country.
Some surveys still predict a Chávez victory on Sunday. And Chávez supporters have warned against biased polls that predict a defeat of the reforms so that the opposition can claim fraud after the vote. By law, the Hinterlaces polls cannot be published in Venezuela so close to the Sunday vote.
But Hinterlaces' latest results are in line with most of the other recent polls, showing the ''no'' vote gaining ground as the intention to abstain dropped.
Several anti-Chávez groups had urged voters to stay home, arguing that the vote will be rigged in the president's favor and that going to the polls would then only legitimize a fraud.
Pedro González, a Venezuelan who lives in Miami Lakes, had been among hundreds of local residents planning to sit out Sunday's vote. But on Friday, González said the student protests and the recent decision by opposition leaders in Venezuela to push for a ''no'' vote had prompted him to join thousands of his compatriots who will vote at the Venezuelan consulate in downtown Miami.
''I believe now there is a moral force to denounce an electoral fraud, and that wasn't there before,'' said González, 74. ``I think we can strike a blow against Chávez, one that will make him realize he doesn't have the majority of the Venezuelan people behind him.''
Many others have recently come to share González's resolve, with several local organizations gathering on Tuesday to plan an 11th-hour push to motivate Venezuelan expatriates to vote.
The newly motivated voters cite a series of blows to Chávez's ''yes'' campaign, among them an increasingly critical Catholic church and the recent attacks on the reforms by former top Chávez allies, such as retired Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel. Baduel played a key role in returning Chávez to power after a 2002 coup and was a longtime ally of the leftist president.
The Hinterlaces poll agrees. ''The new social and political actors [the citizens in general, the youths and students . . . and Gen. Baduel] . . . with their ethical and moral discourse offered a superior option,'' the firm said in a statement.
''We now believe we're at the door of an important triumph,'' said Weston resident Pedro Mena, 55.
The university students are the emotional chord that has drawn local Venezuelans back to the polls. The student protests began when Chávez refused to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, the only opposition channel available nationwide. The students have since turned their criticism to the reforms.
''I can't sit in my house and stay comfortable when they [the students] are exposing their lives. . . . The least I can do is make an effort to go and vote.'' said Isilio Arriaga, 58, of Miami.
Alida Contini, 79, of Orlando says the students also are motivating her to make the drive to Miami to vote.
''We've gone so many times to vote, but now I finally believe someone will be there to take care of our vote,'' said Contini, who decided to make the trip after seeing TV coverage of the students' rally in Caracas on Thursday.
A week ago, the Venezuelan community -- largely opposed to Chávez -- appeared dormant, with local organizations refraining from the fevered organizing that marked last year's presidential elections.
The local opposition was left dispirited and divided after Chávez's bruising defeat of opposition candidate Manuel Rosales.
''Before, there was more passivity and silence from the community, but there has been . . . more interest now,'' said Consul General Antonio Hernández Borgo.
The consulate decided last week to change the polling site from Tropical Park to the consulate, at 1101 Brickell Ave., Borgo said, because of concerns that the Park space was ''too open.'' The move, however, has sparked concerns and criticism from many in the community because of the lack of space and easy parking at the downtown consulate.
''It's going to make it much more difficult to vote because the consulate is going to be crowded,'' said González. ``It could be a disaster.''
El Nuevo staff writer Ocando contributed from Caracas and Miami Herald staff writer Casey Woods contributed from Miami. Herald correspondent Tyler Bridges also contributed from Caracas.