Voters Reject Chavez's Reforms

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez crashed to an unprecedented defeat Monday as Venezuelans narrowly rejected his bid to run for re-election indefinitely and accelerate his socialist revolution.

In a fiercely contested referendum Sunday, voters said "No" to a raft of reforms that would have scrapped term limits on Chavez's rule, boosted his powers to expropriate private property and allowed him to censor the media.

The "No" camp won with about 51 percent of the vote, beating the anti-U.S. president, who received around 49 percent support, election officials said early Monday.

Used to winning national votes easily, Chavez conceded defeat but said he would "continue in the battle to build socialism."

Chavez, a self-styled revolutionary and close ally of Cuba who wants to rule for life, also said the reform proposals remained "alive," suggesting that he might try to push them through later.

Opposition activists cheered, honked horns and waved flags out of car windows. Many said Venezuela had escaped the imposition of authoritarian rule.

"The reform would have made some frightening changes in our country," said an ecstatic Astrid Badell, 18. "It would have practically been a copy of the Cuban constitution, and that would have been a big step backward."

Chavez remains in control of most Venezuelan institutions even after suffering his first ballot-box loss since he swept into office in 1998.

"This is not a defeat. This is another 'for now,'" Chavez said, repeating a famous quote when, as a red-bereted paratrooper in 1992, he acknowledged on television that he had failed to seize power in a coup attempt.