Despite outcry, Chavez plan likely to pass

Times Staff Writer

Less than three weeks from a vote on his proposal to overhaul the Venezuelan Constitution and strengthen his grip on power, President Hugo Chavez is facing an uncharacteristic reversal in public opinion.

A growing number of students and voters, even a former Chavez crony, say they oppose the constitutional overhaul because they believe it is anti-democratic. But despite that, Chavez’s bid to bolster his 21st century socialism is widely expected to pass.

Surveys by two independent pollsters show that only a third of Venezuelans support the changes, which have been criticized as a ploy to increase socialization and militarization of the country, and further concentrate power in Chavez’s hands.


The pollsters, Alfredo Keller of Keller & Associates and Luis Vicente Leon of Datanalisis, each say that at this point, the proposal still is likely to pass Dec. 2 because a low turnout among the highly fragmented opposition would probably favor Chavez, a fierce and vocal critic of the United States. Although falling steadily over the last two years, Chavez’s approval rating among voters remains solid at about 57%, Keller said.

Large numbers of Chavez opponents have abstained in recent balloting, including Chavez’s landslide reelection last year.

Many are convinced that the polling is rigged in Chavez’s favor, although international monitors have never found meaningful instances of fraud.

As the vote nears, the situation in Venezuela has become more uncertain and volatile. Ever since the final draft of the proposal was unveiled Nov. 2, student groups from universities across Venezuela have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the package or to demand that the vote be postponed to allow for further debate.

Student leaders and other critics have slammed the lack of transparency in the process by which Chavez and the National Assembly drafted changes to 69 articles in the constitution.

“The changes he is proposing are more appropriate to a constitutional assembly, not a simple yes or no,” said Dariela Sosa, a journalism student at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas, the capital. “We want time to evaluate the proposal on its own merits, not according to who is proposing it.”

The protests have intensified as Chavez has portrayed students as the spoiled offspring of the rich and tools of his enemies. Chavez described his foes at a news conference Tuesday as “mafia, gangsters like Vito Corleone.”

Demonstrations at times have turned violent. One female student protester was shot to death in Zulia state this month and eight were wounded in a separate incident in Caracas last week. All victims were opponents of the proposed charter changes.

At his news conference, Chavez again said students were being manipulated by his enemies, and that the demonstrations were a provocation to “justify a coup d’etat.”

The sharpest blow to Chavez came last week when his former defense minister and confidant, retired Gen. Raul Baduel, called a news conference to describe the proposed overhaul as “fraudulent” and akin to a coup. On Monday, he again said voters should turn out to defeat the proposal.

Baduel, who helped restore Chavez to power after an abortive April 2002 coup, was immediately denounced as a traitor by Chavez loyalists. When Luis Tascon of the National Assembly said last week that Baduel shouldn’t be branded a traitor for expressing his opinion, Tascon was summarily expelled from Chavez’s party, the legislator later claimed.

One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said it was hard to determine whether Baduel represented a significant cross-section of disaffected officers in the ranks.

Even analysts who in the past have trod a middle ground in Venezuela’s highly polarized political landscape and who have praised aspects of Chavez’s social agenda expressed alarm this week about the “recentralization” of political power.

Most worrisome for many is the new political hierarchy that would be created: a series of newly designated political regions and municipalities whose leaders would be appointed by Chavez and whose powers could supersede those of elected governors and mayors.

“These reforms are profoundly contradictory of the principles of participatory democracy embedded in the last constitution of 1999,” said Margarita Lopez Maya, a history professor at the University of Central Venezuela. “It’s a constitution not of everyone but of Chavez.”

In a key change that worries many observers, the overhaul would redefine the role of the military from protecting national sovereignty to also ensuring domestic peace. Moreover, the military would take on a greater role in social and economic policies.

Daniel Hellinger, a professor of political science at Webster University in St. Louis, said the proposed constitutional changes had “divided the Chavista movement internally.”

“Some of the reforms are innovative mechanisms designed to decentralize and democratize how oil profits are distributed and used, but others concentrate additional powers in an already powerful presidency,” Hellinger said.

Even Chavez’s ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez, piled on this week, telling reporters that her former husband is wrong to change the 1999 constitution. “This would concentrate absolute power,” she said. “They are throwing away a constitution that was the product of a legitimate and valid debate in which the people were heard.”

Chavez supporters say a new constitution is the will of the majority of voters who have supported Chavez in five nationwide votes since he took power in 1999. The fiery leader has framed his vision for a new socialist state as a means of redistributing the nation’s oil wealth and reversing the social inequities that have plagued his nation.

“That I am sitting here is the evidence of the failure of the same old recipe, call it capitalism, neoliberalism or globalization,” Chavez said Tuesday.

Chavez has built enormous support among Venezuela’s poor by using a dozen or more social outreach programs to extend free education, medical care and subsidized food to marginalized areas.

Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College, said some critics were overreacting, that the proposed charter alterations “seek to institutionalize much of the political changes we have seen proposed in the past eight years” with the support of most Venezuelans.

“Ever since Chavez appeared on the political stage, the opposition has been saying that Venezuela was on the edge of a precipice, Chavez was amassing dictatorial powers, private property was all but lost, freedom of press was about to be abolished, and yet this has not transpired,” Tinker Salas said.

“It did not occur with the adoption of the 1999 constitution, and it is difficult to imagine such a scenario if the current constitutional changes are adopted.”

But opponents say Chavez is going too far by proposing that he be allowed to run for reelection indefinitely.

The presidential terms would also be extended from six to seven years. Chavistas counter that voters knew before last December’s election that Chavez would propose such a change.

But Caracas-based constitutional law and human rights expert Gerardo Fernandez said unlimited reelection leads to dictatorship in countries with weak democratic institutions.

Fernandez is also concerned about the proposal’s effect on businesses and private property owners, saying communal property rights would be strengthened and individual property rights weakened under the new charter.

Webster University’s Hellinger said the proposal’s most controversial change perhaps is one that expands the president’s authority to limit speech and detain individuals in emergencies. Though commonly found in democratic constitutions, the emergency measures “elicited criticism from several former Chavista officials, not just from the opposition,” Hellinger said

“In this polarized climate, the contest once again revolves around Chavez and less on the issues,” Hellinger said.


Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to this report.