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Venezuela Votes on Broad Powers for Chavez

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Elections today in two oil-rich countries, both of them have leaders who've been whipping up anti-American sentiment and drawing concern from Washington.

We begin with Venezuela, where millions turned out to vote today on controversial reforms that would fundamentally change the country's political and economic system. A yes vote on the referendum would also give President Hugo Chavez broad new powers to run a country he has declared socialist.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas.

(Soundbite of people talking)

JUAN FORERO: In a poor pro-Chavez district, people lined up to vote, many of them for a constitutional reform that would permit President Hugo Chavez to run for reelection indefinitely. He would also name governors to special new provinces he would create, and he'd control the Central Bank, giving him extra ordinary influence over the country's oil-generated wealth.

Hesus Hernandez(ph) voted for the proposal.

Mr. HESUS HERNANDEZ (Voter, Venzuela): (Speaking in Spanish)

FORERO: He says the reform is marvelous.

A few weeks ago, Chavez had been expected to easily win this referendum, the latest in a string that he's won since taking office in 1999. But some recent polls showed opponents had the no-vote winning.

Supporters say the reform will give more power to the people through special community councils. But there are concerns the reforms are nothing short of a power grab. And that sentiment was alive and well even in the district that has benefited greatly from the government's ambitious social programs.

Elicio Pongsil(ph) is a small businessman.

Mr. ELICIO PONGSIL (Businessman): (Speaking in Spanish)

FORERO: He says people who have been with Chavez did not support the reforms, conceives that Chavez wants to a blank check and that's impossible. We're not stupid as he thinks.

The government has been well aware of the opposition and has reacted by turning the election into a plebiscite on Chavez's rule. Indeed, Chavez's vote against the reform is a vote for President George Bush, the government's sworn enemy. Pollsters have frequently said turnout needs to be large for the no-vote to win.

While official figures were not available yet, electoral monitor Pedro Nikken said turnout appeared to be light. He directs the nonpartisan Electoral Eye monitoring group.

Mr. PEDRO NIKKEN (Director, Electoral Eye): The first information we have is that in all country and the whole country and in every social classes and sectors, the assistance to polls is slow, and it's a low voter turnout.

FORERO: Nikken, whose group is well-respected by both camps in Venezuela, said he believed that a vote would be fair and that fraud is unlikely.

At a voting station in a more affluent part of town, people were optimistic about turning back the reforms. They said the decision Venezuela was making was crucial for the future of democracy.

Oscar Arnal(ph) is a professor of international relations. He voted against the reforms.

Professor OSCAR ARNAL (International Relations): Today, I think, people are voting for democracy or for process of check and balance.

FORERO: The results are expected sometime this evening.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juan Forero