TYLER BRIDGES / PHIL GUNSON
December 03, 2007
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez acknowledged Monday his first-ever defeat at the polls after voters rejected reforms in a weekend referendum that would have strengthened his grip on power and turned his oil-rich country into a socialist state.
CARACAS -- Venezuelans Monday awoke to a President Hugo Chávez knocked down -- but not out -- by a stunning defeat in a vote in which he was seeking to deepen his vision of ``21st century socialism.''
The firebrand Chávez conceded defeat in the vote Sunday but then repeated his famous words after he was captured following his 1992 coup attempt: ``for now ... ''
Thousands of jubilant opponents of the president gathered early Monday in the capital's Altamira Plaza -- long a redoubt for anti-Chávez protests -- but had largely gone home by dawn.
The final outcome of the vote on radical constitutional reforms -- 51 percent voted NO and 49 percent YES -- was a surprise because Chávez had defeated his political foes five times in a row dating to his 1998 election as president, and also because he seemed to be on the verge of claiming victory Sunday based on some of his exit polls.
Chavez told reporters at the presidential palace that the outcome had taught him that ''Venezuelan democracy is maturing.'' His respect for the verdict, he asserted, proves he is a true democratic leader.
''From this moment on, let's be calm,'' he said, urging that there be no more street violence like the clashes that marred pre-vote protests. ``There is no dictatorship here.''
Sunday night's result seems to indicate that Chávez overreached in seeking the right to run for reelection indefinitely and buttress his political affinity with Cuba, even as he remained personally popular with voters.
The outcome will undoubtedly be cheered within the Bush administration and in Spain, Colombia and Peru. Chávez has called President Bush the ''devil,'' Colombian President Alvaro Uribe a U.S. ''lackey'' and Peruvian President Alan Garcia a ''thief.'' He demanded in the days before the referendum that Spanish King Juan Carlos apologize for having told him last month to ``shut up.''
Conversely, the political leadership in Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, Chávez's three closest allies in Latin America, will undoubtedly mourn the result.
The outcome weakens Chávez's hand at home and abroad, and marks the emergence of two potentially formidable political foes: university student leaders who galvanized the opposition and retired Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, who once was one of Chávez's closest collaborators as defense minister but became a harsh critic of the proposed changes.
A victory would have given Chávez nearly absolute political power in Venezuela and allowed him to continue nationalizing privately owned companies, giving money to the poor, aiding political allies in Latin America, strengthening his alliance with communist Cuba and sharpening his conflict with Washington -- even though his country is the fourth biggest supplier of oil to the United States.
Chávez and his political allies already control Venezuela's Congress, the Supreme Court, the judicial system and 20 of 22 governorships. And his current presidential term runs to 2013 -- another five years.
After the polls closed, it appeared that a Chávez victory was inevitable because of the low turnout -- 56 percent. Many Chávez opponents had called on voters to stay home to avoid legitimizing a result that they believed was preordained.
It turned out that many Chávez supporters refused to support him this time.
''I have always voted for Chávez, but he wants a dictatorship like Cuba,'' said Algimiro Polanco, a 56-year-old bus driver, after he voted in the Caricuao neighborhood in Caracas. ``I don't want the government to take my small house. It's mine.''
The government reported arresting 45 people on election-related charges, but despite a smattering of complaints by the opposition, the voting appeared to have been conducted without major controversy.
Low-income Venezuelans said they expected that Chávez, with a victory, would continue to shower government benefits on them.
Reynaldo Tarazona, a 53-year-old taxi driver, said he is studying English and tourism for free at the Bolivarian University in Caracas established by Chávez.
''Chávez is not only for the poor in Venezuela but for making the entire world more just for the poor,'' Tarazona said after voting for the proposed changes.
Chávez has spent billions of Venezuela's oil income in aid aimed at helping the poor throughout Latin America and at building political support from other regional leaders.
Many better-off Venezuelans said that passage of the proposed changes would leave them contemplating whether to join tens of thousands of others who have left the country in recent years rather than be governed by Chávez.
José Rodríguez, a 48-year-old official of the Caracas Lions baseball team, said he already had an appointment Monday at the U.S. Embassy to apply for a visa to move to South Florida. He was also investigating the possibility of moving with his family to Panama.
''Chávez wants communism, the same system they have in Cuba,'' Rodríguez said after voting in the upscale Chacao neighborhood. ``Private property isn't safe.''
The president has nationalized the main phone company and a major utility and forced foreign oil companies to give the government a majority stake in their oil fields or leave the country -- as ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips have chosen to do -- even as the economy boomed on record oil prices.
Among the most hotly debated changes were those that would allow Chávez to seek unlimited reelection -- he said Friday that he wants to remain president until 2050, when he would be 95 -- and declare Venezuela a ''socialist'' nation while giving him direct control over the country's $30 billion in foreign reserves.
Chávez used the full machinery of government to push for a ''yes'' vote in the referendum, including blanketing the state TV and radio channels with ''yes'' ads. He had muzzled the main opposition television channel, RCTV, earlier this year by not renewing its operating license.
But poor people in Venezuela say he has improved their lives.
The poverty rate in Venezuela declined from 49 percent in 1999, when Chávez took office, to 30 percent in 2006, the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reported last month.
Opponents of the referendum included the Catholic Church hierarchy; the country's biggest business group; human rights groups; Chávez's ex-wife, Marisabel Rodríguez; and former Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, who was Chávez's defense minister until mid-year.
Miami Herald translator Renato Perez and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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