Old Allies Abandon Chávez as Constitution Vote Nears

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."

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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