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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)

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Chávez also warns that the opponents of the reforms who have been protesting in the streets are collaborating with the Bush administration to assassinate him, a frequent accusation in this politically charged country.

He says the constitutional amendments will give more power to the people through newly empowered community councils and cut bureaucracy from provincial governments, freeing up money for social programs. Chávez denies that he desires more power.

"I don't want to accumulate power. For what?" he said in a speech this week to pro-government businessmen. "I'm an anti-power subversive, for those who haven't noticed."

Prominent Chávez backers who have publicly broken with him have said the proposals are all about amassing power in the presidency, which already controls the National Assembly, the courts and most state and local governments. "The proposal is illegal," a former wife of the president, Marisabel Rodríguez, said in a public statement this week.

In interviews, three former key allies of the president said they remain true to their leftist values but felt it was time to break with Chávez because of what they characterized as his lack of tolerance and his drive for more power.

"We've all been revolutionaries and we have believed in socialism all our lives, but socialism within democracy," said Ismael García, secretary general of Podemos, a party that broke with Chávez. "We have to ask him, how do you feel abandoning a constitution that says Venezuela is a state of laws, of justice for all, that it's federal, decentralized, plural and diverse?"

The biggest blow to Chávez came when retired Gen. Raúl Baduel, 52, turned against him this month.

Chávez, Baduel and two other young army officers formed a clandestine anti-government group 25 years ago that eventually spawned the movement that ushered Chávez into power. Later, as an army commander, Baduel remained loyal to Chávez during a brief 2002 coup that had tacit support from the Bush administration.

Baduel said he remained loyal to Chávez because the coup was unconstitutional, and that he has now broken with the president for the same reason. He says a new constitution can be drafted by only an elected constituent assembly.

"The proposal, in addition to taking power from the people, is taking the country to disaster," said Baduel. "We're giving discretionary power to one person to take transcendental decisions about the direction our country should take."

Baduel said he carefully pondered whether to publicly oppose the proposed changes.

He said his conscience finally prompted him to act. "We need to be careful to distance ourselves from the Marxist orthodoxy that considers that democracy and its separation of powers is just an instrument of bourgeoisie domination," Baduel said.

Pollsters and political analysts say that the emergence of prominent Chavistas opposed to the changes has animated voters who until recently had planned to abstain. In October, said León, of Datanalisis, abstention was expected to reach 60 percent. Now, it's predicted to be 40 percent.

That's important for the opposition because to win on Sunday, its leaders must prod voters to polling stations in high numbers.

"Sunday is going to hinge on turnout," said Mark Feierstein , vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Washington polling firm that has worked in Venezuela. "The government has a great machine, and he can turn out his people, and his people are enthusiastic. And the question is whether the opposition can turn out."

Here in Sucre state, Gov. Martínez has pledged to ensure that "no" voters come out in force.

Martínez would have a lot to lose, he acknowledges, if the "yes" vote wins. It would give Chávez powers to create special federal territories, to be governed by appointed vice presidents.

"He now says he's the one who transfers the power, that it's not the people who transfer the power to him," said Martínez. "We talk of constructing a society from the bottom up, but he wants it top down."


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