Venezuela Votes on Chavez's Changes

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelans voted in a tightly contested referendum Sunday on whether to allow left-wing President Hugo Chavez to stay in power for as long as he keeps winning elections or hand him his first defeat at the polls.

The anti-U.S. firebrand, who has easily won one election after another against a fragmented opposition, is in the hardest campaign of his life as he moves to deepen his self-styled revolution by reforming the constitution.

He predicts that he will win by 10 percentage points, but most polls show a neck-and-neck race between backers of the referendum that Chavez says will usher in "21st-century socialism" and those who call them an assault on democracy.

"It's dangerous," said one "No" voter, who identified herself as Victoria as she waited in line at a polling station in an upscale anti-Chavez neighborhood in the sunny capital.

A man standing nearby, who declined to give his name, said he voted "Yes" to back the president's effort at cracking down on tax evasion by rich Venezuelans and corporations.

With campaigning tarnished by violence, many Venezuelans fear political turbulence in the OPEC member nation if the losing side refuses to accept the results of Sunday's vote. Early reports indicated that voting was orderly.

Faced with concerns from even moderate supporters that the reforms will give him too much power, Chavez has tried to portray the vote as a plebiscite on his rule.

The former paratrooper, who has led Venezuela since 1999 and is a close ally of Cuba and Iran, also has escalated his verbal attacks on the U.S. government and opponents at home.

"Whoever votes 'Yes' is voting for Chavez and whoever votes 'No' is voting for George W. Bush, president of the United States," Chavez told supporters at a massive rally in Caracas on Friday.

A "Yes" vote would scrap limits on how long Chavez can rule as president, and he has said he will stay on for decades if Venezuelans keep voting for him.

The reforms also would give him control over the Central Bank and foreign currency reserves bloated by high oil export revenues, reduce the workday to six hours and extend social security benefits to informal workers like street vendors.

Chavez loyalists already control the Congress, and critics say he has stacked the Supreme Court and the election council with followers. Opponents believe that he would use the new powers to impose dictatorial rule.

Many of Chavez's own supporters are unenthusiastic about the reforms and are more concerned about jobs, crime, housing and recent shortages of basic foods.

The opposition has long been divided but was boosted by an anti-Chavez student movement that emerged earlier this year when he shut down Venezuela's most-viewed television station.

Chavez, 53, leads a growing anti-U.S. bloc in South America, and his leftist allies in Ecuador and Bolivia also are trying to use constitutional rewrites to increase presidential powers and extend state control of energy resources.

Chavez accuses the Bush administration of planning to meddle with the referendum and has threatened to halt oil exports to the United States.