Poor Venezuelans sold on change
After a year in office, President Chvez is still popular, and
On a boulevard blocked off to traffic in decaying central Caracas, thousands of Venezuelans dance to Salsa bands and press bright round stickers exclaiming simply "S!" - "Yes" - to the foreheads, arms, and clothing of any unmarked passersby.Skip to next paragraph
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The happy crowd is part of the army of Venezuelans, many of them impoverished by decades of poor management of the country's vast oil wealth, expected to give an overwhelming s today to a new constitution fashioned by the populist former Army officer, President Hugo Chvez.
The downtown crowd - kids in knockoff Tommy Hilfiger fashions, adults in Chvez T-shirts - pushes through piles of campaign detritus and makeshift sausage stands, cheering when a rally leader proclaims that Venezuelans are about to approve "the best constitution in the world."
The rally and constitution it supports mark the revenge of the 80 percent of the population that has sunk below the country's poverty line over more than a decade of inefficient government, corruption scandals, and concentrating wealth. "This is a big party, because after 40 years of corruption and deception, the poor and middle classes are finally saying 'enough' to the politicians who robbed too much and left Venezuela in rags," says Manuel Hamilton, a Caracas municipal government administrator. "People voting 'no' are simply afraid of losing their illicit privileges."
Venezuelans opposed to the new constitution say it is at best ambiguous and opens the door to a concentration of power under President Chvez, reduces civil oversight of the military, and promotes a centralization of power when the rest of the world is decentralizing government. At worst, they say, it puts the country on the road to dictatorship and a statist economy doomed to Cuban-style economic ruin.
But the country's "no" forces are apparently resigned to the fact that a year after taking office, the red-bereted Chvez still commands a religious-like faith among the majority.
Across Caracas in the Altamira neighborhood's elegant Plaza Francia, families toting fine leather accessories, enjoy the square's tasteful red, green, and white miniature lights and listen to children in red-velvet gowns with white-lace collars sing Christmas carols. At the foot of a Christmas tree rivaling Rockefeller Center's own, the Perozo family laments Venezuela's direction but says the decline will continue as long as Chvez is president.
"With or without this constitution we are going toward a dictatorship," says Luis Perozo, a Caracas lawyer. "We all knew deep changes were needed, but this constitution serves the country's least educated and least productive forces." Adds Luis Jr., a Caracas law student, "The constitution is very divisive. It splits us among civilians and the military and Indians, with different rights for each."
That sense of uncertainty results from the new constitution's many ambiguities. In recent days, such ambiguity has prompted financial powerhouses such as Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan, and Morgan Stanley to recommend that international investors be cautious in new Venezuelan ventures. Some observers say the real direction the new "magna carta" will take will become clear only after clarifying laws are written.