Venezuelans overwhelmingly approved a new constitution today, giving President Hugo Chavez broad new powers and increasing the state's role in the economy of this oil-rich but poverty-stricken country.
The National Electoral Council reported tonight that with 82 percent of the votes counted, 71 percent were in favor of the charter while 29 percent were against it. Turnout was reported to be 46 percent of Venezuela's 11 million registered voters, a poor showing that officials attributed in part to torrential rains in much of the country.
As the results of the nationwide referendum were announced, celebrations broke out in the streets of this capital, with drivers honking car horns and waving flags.
"Today is the end of an era of corruption and shame . . . and of an oligarchic nation," Chavez declared tonight at the Miraflores Presidential Palace.
The charter, which Chavez has called "a birth certificate for a new Venezuela," will abolish the Senate, mandate continued state ownership of the oil industry and consolidate power in the executive branch, effectively giving Chavez, a populist former paratrooper who led an unsuccessful coup in 1992, the opportunity to rule the country until 2012.
With polls showing that less than 2 percent of the voters had read the new constitution, the referendum was more of a plebiscite on Chavez's year-old administration.
"I do not know much, if anything about it, really. But I imagine that a new constitution would have to be better than the current one," said Pedro Caldera, 50, an orthopedic technician. "My vote is for Chavez and against the crooks who sacked the country for 40 years and left us disappointed."
Officials were forced to close the polls two hours later than scheduled because of heavy rains that caused flooding and mudslides. By tonight, authorities reported 37 people dead, 10 missing and more than 10,500 homeless. Television reports said a state of emergency was declared in a half-dozen states.
Chavez's first year in office has marked a jarring break with four decades of political dominance by two traditional parties and raised concerns that Chavez--who has a close relationship with Cuban President Fidel Castro--is trying to consolidate power in a country that is the leading exporter of oil to the United States.
Capitalizing on his popularity among Venezuela's poor, the former army lieutenant colonel has campaigned vigorously on behalf of the new constitution, which was drafted in 100 days by an elected Constituent Assembly, in which 90 percent of the seats are held by Chavez supporters.
Chavez's political opponents and the business community have criticized the changes, warning that they consolidate too much power in Chavez's hands and give the state too large a role in the nation's economy, which is currently mired in a deep recession.
The debate surrounding the new constitution, which would replace one drafted in 1961, has been divisive. One of the most contentious constitutional articles would extend presidential terms from five years to six and allow presidents to run for consecutive reelection once--a change that could allow Chavez to remain office for more than 13 years. Under the current constitution, a president may seek a second term, but only after being out of office.
Tonight, Chavez sought to be conciliatory. "Let us unite everyone . . . and leave behind the dogma," he said. "We still have a hard road to walk, but let us face the task of rebuilding the motherland together."
Today's referendum was the fifth time Venezuelans have gone to the polls since last December's presidential balloting, and under the terms of the new constitution, presidential, congressional and municipal elections should be held in March.
Chavez was elected on a wave of popular discontent over entrenched governmental corruption and mismanagement. He has said it would make the notoriously corrupt court system more democratic, protect human rights, promote economic development and guarantee more equitable wages in a country where 80 percent of the population of 23 million lives in poverty.
Under the new constitution--which would be Venezuela's 26th since it gained independence from Spain in 1821--civilian oversight of the armed forces would be reduced and the Senate would be abolished to create a unicameral National Assembly. The country's name would be changed to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in honor of South American liberator Simon Bolivar, whom Chavez repeatedly evokes in speeches.
The charter also contains a vague but controversial provision that requires the media to provide "truthful information." The clause has caused concern among journalists who say it could be used as a vehicle for censorship.
Aware that the success of his presidency hangs on the approval of the constitution, Chavez launched a fierce public relations battle before the vote. He likened opponents to "a truckload of squealing pigs," called Roman Catholic Church officials "degenerate priests" and said businessmen were members of a "rancid oligarchy."
But critics contend that the document, which would also weaken the authority of state and municipal governments, concentrates too much power in the hands of the president and provides a way for Chavez to perpetuate his term in office.
Business executives have contended that the charter gives the state too big a role in the country's economy. They said the referendum has further heightened the sense of uncertainty among foreign investors.
CAPTION: Chavez calls the new charter a "birth certificate for Venezuela" that will consolidate power in the executive branch and give him the chance to rule until 2012.
CAPTION: Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrate the approval of a new constitution that will vastly increase his control.