The New York Times
December 03, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 3 — Boisterous Venezuelans celebrated in Caracas early today after voters narrowly defeated a proposed overhaul to the constitution in a contentious referendum over granting President Hugo Chávez sweeping new powers.
Mr. Chávez’s supporters at Miraflores Palace in Caracas after the results were announced. More Photos »
It was the first major electoral defeat in the nine years of his presidency. Voters rejected the 69 proposed amendments 51 to 49 percent, according to the Election Commission.
The political opposition erupted into celebration, shooting fireworks into the air and honking car horns, when electoral officials announced the results at 1:20 a.m. The nation had remained on edge since polls closed Sunday afternoon and the wait for results began.
The outcome is a stunning development in a country where Mr. Chávez and his supporters control nearly all of the levers of power. Almost immediately after the results were broadcast on state television, Mr. Chávez conceded defeat, describing the results as a “photo finish.”
“I congratulate my adversaries for this victory,” he said. “For now, we could not do it.”
Opposition leaders were ecstatic. “Tonight, Venezuela has won,” said Manuel Rosales, governor of Zulia State and the opposition’s candidate in presidential elections last year.
At 2 a.m., hundreds of people flocked to Plaza Altamira in relatively prosperous eastern Caracas. People played drums, jumped up and down, exchanged hugs and chanted antigovernment slogans. Most were students. Many were sipping from bottles of rum or whiskey.
“I didn’t think we were going to win,” said Diana Cocho, 24, who has a real estate business. “The government took us into account, took our vote into account.”
“I thought Chávez looked scared, like he expected something different,” she said about the president’s speech accepting defeat.
Extending their celebration into the wee hours of Monday, the students blocked traffic in all directions by parking their cars in the middle of the street around the plaza. They chanted, “Long live the university,” and “The government will fall.”
In recent weeks, members of previously splintered opposition movements joined disillusioned Chávez supporters in an attempt to defeat the referendum on constitutional changes. The plan would abolish term limits, allow Mr. Chávez to declare states of emergency for unlimited periods and increase the state’s role in the economy, among other measures.
The defeat slows Mr. Chávez’s socialist-inspired transformation of the country. Venezuela, once a staunch ally of the United States, has become a leading opponent of the Bush administration’s policies in the developing world. It has also taken the most profound leftward turn of any large Latin American nation in decades.
The referendum followed several weeks of street protests and frenetic campaigning over the amendments to the Constitution proposed by Mr. Chávez and his supporters. It caps a year of bold moves by the president, who forged a single Socialist party among his followers, forced a television network critical of the government off the public airwaves, and nationalized oil, telephone and electricity companies.
In Caracas on Sunday, turnout in poorer neighborhoods, where support for Mr. Chávez is strong, indicated that the referendum was drawing a mixed response. Lines were long in some areas and nonexistent in others.
“The whole proposal is marvelous,” said Francis Veracierta, 52, a treasurer at a communal council here, one of thousands of local governing entities loyal to Mr. Chávez that he created this year. After awakening to predawn fireworks, she said she joined a line at 6 a.m. to vote at a school in Petare, an area of sprawling hillside slums here.
“The power is for us in the community,” said Ms. Veracierta, wearing a red shirt, red cap and belt with Che Guevara’s face on it. She said she credited Mr. Chávez’s government for giving her a $3,800 loan to start a small clothing business.
Some of Mr. Chávez’s populist proposals, including an increase in social security benefits for some workers, have been praised even by his critics.
Turnout in some poor districts was unexpectedly low, indicating that even the president’s backers were willing to follow him only so far. Some Chávez supporters expressed concern that if they voted against the measures they might be retaliated against. Turnout of registered voters was just 56 percent.