Old Allies Abandon Chávez as Constitution Vote Nears

President Ch¿vez, campaigning in Tachira state, has called the referendum a plebiscite on his rule.
President Ch¿vez, campaigning in Tachira state, has called the referendum a plebiscite on his rule. (By Juan Carlos Solorzano -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 29, 2007

CUMANA, Venezuela -- Few associates had been as loyal to President Hugo Chávez as the governor of the coastal state of Sucre, Ramón Martínez. And few are now more determined to defeat Chávez as he campaigns for constitutional changes that, if approved by voters on Sunday, could extend his presidency for life.

Chávez, 53 and in his ninth tumultuous year in office, was until recently predicted to win a referendum that would permit him to run for 8office indefinitely, appoint governors to federal districts he would create, and control the purse strings of one of the world's major oil-producing countries.

But Martínezand a handful of others who once were prominent pillars in the Chávez machine, have defected, saying approval of 69 constitutional changes would effectively turn Venezuela into a dictatorship run at the whim of one man. They have been derided by Chávez as traitors, but their unimpeachable leftist credentials have given momentum to a movement that pollsters say may deliver Chávez his first electoral defeat.

"The proposal would signify a coup d'etat," said Martínez, 58, whose dapper appearance belies his history as a guerrilla and Communist Party member. "Here the power is going to be concentrated in one person. That's very grave."

Pollsters in Caracas say Venezuelans increasingly agree -- even those who continue to support the president but say the proposed overhaul of an eight-year-old constitution goes too far.

Datanalisis , a respected Caracas polling firm that earlier this month was predicting a Chávez win, said that 48 percent of respondents in an opinion survey last week said they would vote "no" to the constitutional amendments, compared with 39 percent who expressed support, polling director Luis Vicente León said.

"In those three weeks, what's happened is, the people have been sensitized," León said. "What happened is, he presented a reform the people don't like."

Datanalisis accurately predicted Chávez victories in past elections, including last year's presidential election, in which he won a second six-year term by an overwhelming margin. León said the president's vigorous campaigning in these last few days is closing the gap. "It all depends on the capacity to mobilize," he said, "and we know who has that capacity."

The government has embarked on an all-out crusade, including a barrage of television ads and political rallies, with Chávez giving three or more speeches each day. When the day is done, Chávez appears on Mario Silva's "The Razor Blade," a talk show on government television, where he expounds well into the night. His face stares down from billboards and placards with the word "Sí," adorning balconies and windows.

Darleny Córdoba, 24, recently received, along with a group of friends, about $12,000 in government aid to start up a restaurant. She was bused recently from Cumana to Caracas for a rally. She says she's voting for the president.

"I think the reforms are good," she said. "I find nothing wrong with them. The articles they're putting in will be better than before."

The president has characterized the referendum as a plebiscite on his rule, telling a packed arena recently that anyone who says he supports Chávez but votes "no" is a "true traitor."

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