Tensions rise in Venezuela as referendum approaches

The Baltimore Sun

CARACAS, Venezuela -In the final days before a referendum that will determine whether President Hugo Chavez can run for re-election indefinitely, the campaign has an ugly edge.

Anti-government protests have intensified in some cities, despite government pressure, and pro-Chavez vigilantes have attacked institutions such as the Caracas mayor's office and the Vatican's diplomatic mission. The chief of a leading opposition party, Democratic Action leader Henry Ramos, said a hand grenade exploded late Saturday, shattering windows and damaging the facade of its Caracas headquarters. No one was hurt.

Chavez has condemned the attacks and ordered police to crack down.

This is Chavez's second try in less than two years at extending his stay in office, which he says is necessary to continue the socialist-inspired revolution that he began a decade ago. The narrow rejection of his attempt in late 2007 - part of a broader constitutional overhaul - was an embarrassing blow.

The referendum Sunday also offers an opening for Venezuela's fractious opposition to look beyond 2013, when Chavez's six-year term expires. The president's followers control every political institution of importance at the federal level, including the Supreme Court and National Assembly.

"For the opposition, the referendum is quite important because they continue to lack a leader capable of challenging Chavez for the presidency," said Gregory Wilpert, a Venezuela specialist who teaches political science at Brooklyn College. "Defeating it is thus their best and perhaps only chance to beat Chavez in the foreseeable future."

Two months ago, Chavez's allies lost ground in regional elections, with areas such as Maracaibo, the second-largest city, and impoverished districts of Caracas going to the opposition. But the momentum from those victories has given way to a tight race over the 54-year-old president's bid to stay in office.

Although many voters complain of the surge in violent crime and rising inflation, Chavez has kept opponents on the defensive, displaying the political skills that have enabled him to consolidate power.

"Chavez is surrounded by corrupt idiots, but he keeps his focus on helping the poor," said Omaira de Catacoli, 66, a cook who lives in Catia, a patchwork of slums in western Caracas. "With Chavez, we have at least a little hope."

Venezuela's economy is faltering, injecting urgency into the campaign. On Saturday, thousands marched through the main streets of Caracas against Chavez's proposal to stay in power, while Chavez led caravans in support of it in Caracas and Maracaibo.

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