Chavez Gives Light to Poor Ahead of Referendum

BUENA VISTA, Venezuela -- Aurelia Velasquez's mud hut still has a black stain on the wall from the kerosene lamp she used for 20 years, but she proudly points to a ceiling light bulb as a sign she finally has power.

Three months ago a community council backed by the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez replaced obsolete electricity lines, bringing power to a remote corner of one of the world's largest energy exporters.

Another community council secured government funding for the tank of fresh water in her yard that saves her from daily treks to a nearby stream, and her remote mountain hamlet now has a free ambulance for medical emergencies.

As part of a broad social-development campaign, Chavez's self-styled revolution has created a network of over 33,000 local community councils to distribute the OPEC nation's rich oil revenues to the poorest regions of Venezuela.

The Cuba ally is proposing that the councils become the backbone of local governance under a broad constitutional reform -- which would also scrap presidential term limits -- that Venezuelans will vote on in a Dec. 2 referendum.

"We have been here 20 years without power," says Velasquez, 35, who lives mostly off subsistence farming. "I'm so happy we finally have it -- that lamp filled my house with smoke."

Polls show that voters are divided over the reform. The opposition says it is Chavez's attempt to stay in office for life, but sweeteners such as an expanded pension system and a shorter workday make it appealing to the majority poor.

Chavez first envisioned the councils as part of a utopian society he hoped to create through a failed 1992 coup.

But now the councils have become central to his vision of "21st Century Socialism," an economic model that has brought schools and clinics to the poor but also created periodic shortages of milk, meat and eggs.

"The community councils have to get to the houses way out there so that no one will be left out," Chavez said. "We're headed toward socialism [through] popular power, community councils and direct democracy."

From the sprawling slums of Caracas to isolated rural villages, residents hold elections to create the councils, and then submit requests for government funding for projects such as repairing roads or creating small businesses.

Venezuela hopes to spend as much as $4.2 billion in 2008 to fund such projects, and state oil giant PDVSA plans to hand its gasoline stations to local councils so they can reinvest in their communities.

The communities also built aqueducts through projects of around $14,000 each that take water to the homes of villagers that once struggled in the dry season to collect it.

"Now we're living like rich people with water all the time," said Jose Hernandez, 53, of the 127-person village La Marinera. "We can bathe whenever we want."

Opposition leaders say the groups will simply amass more influence for Chavez, who dominates the courts, electoral authorities, military and state oil company.

"They sell the idea that these are spaces for democratic participation, but they are subject to a vertical structure that comes from the president," said political analyst Ricardo Sucre, who is campaigning against the constitutional overhaul.

Critics also say the councils will supplant mayors and governors, the only posts where opposition leaders hold office. Chavez says they will take on local authorities' functions.

And even some supporters of the president acknowledge that community leaders have stolen government funds assigned to projects due to minimal accounting oversight.

But the criticism barely resonates with residents benefiting from new infrastructure.

Marvis Castro, 57, a nurse's assistant, was evacuated to treat inflammation in her leg.

"Thanks to the community councils now we have the ambulance," she said. "I think they are a great support for communities."

n Voters oppose President Hugo Chavez's proposed changes to the constitution by a wide margin, according to a poll released Saturday, The Associated Press reported.

The survey, published in the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, found that about 49 percent of likely voters oppose the reforms, against 39 percent who favor the changes.

"He who says he supports Chavez but votes 'no' is a traitor, a true traitor," the president said in one of three campaign appearances Friday. "He's against me, against the revolution and against the people."