Will Venezuela's poor still vote for Chávez?

CARACAS, VENEZUELA – Venezuelans in the nation's capital awoke Sunday to the sound of firecrackers and military bugles summoning them to vote on the longevity of President Hugo Chávez’s leadership.

Polls indicate that Mr. Chávez has a slight edge in the national referendum to lift term limits. But this is a tight race that has already produced verbal outbursts, demonstrations, and violence.

The outcome will likely depend on voters in places such as, Petare, a sprawling district in urban Caracas. This area has long been a bastion of support for Mr. Chávez.

But in November’s regional election, Petare voted in the opposition candidate for mayor.

A split decision

In interviews at half dozen polling stations around its leafy central plaza, quiet and peaceful throughout Sunday afternoon, opinions are as divided as ever.

“He’s been in power ten years, and has four more left. That’s 14. It’s not fair to change the constitution to extend his rule,” says Jose Barrio, a lifelong Petare resident and retired head of maintenance at a local hospital. “Too much power makes one unwell.”

At another polling station just down the block, Delia Abreu, another lifelong resident, disagrees. “He hasn’t had enough time to do what he needs to accomplish,” she says. “He is the only one who has cared about us, the poor people.”

"Ten Years is Nothing"

Chávez, who recently celebrated 10 years in office, has said he needs more time to carry out his socialist project and the transformation of the country. His critics say he is just seeking to concentrate more power in his own hands, a charge that Chávez denies. “Ten years is nothing. I don’t know what they’re complaining about,” he said during a news conference Saturday.

This is not the first time that the removal of term limits has been put to voters. At the end of 2007, Chávez attempted to reform the constitution, which does not allow elected officials to serve more than two consecutive terms. Today’s referendum asks voters whether the nation should amend articles to allow elected officials to run for office as long as they wish.

According to the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis, 51.5 percent of those surveyed in January said they sided with the referendum. Other polls give him a higher edge. But if he loses, he’ll have to step down after his current term ends in 2013.

Some voters say they are discouraged by high crime rates – Caracas is one of the most violent cities in Latin America – and high inflation. They say that Chávez cares more about flaunting himself on the world stage than tackling the domestic problems at home.

“I was a Chavista when he was first elected,” says Berta Perez, a house cleaner from Petare. “But he doesn’t do a thing about crime, and prices are out of control. We don’t need to give him more power, we need change.”

Olive Branch for Obama?

Critics have called this referendum a power ploy, and Chávez has been on the defensive, once accusing President Barack Obama of meddling in the election. Observers in Latin America hope that the Obama administration will engage in the region more than former President Bush did.

But US relations with Chávez, whose country is the fourth largest supplier of crude oil to the US, remain problematic. Chávez called Mr. Bush both a "donkey" and "the devil." Last month he insulted President Obama, saying he carried the "same stench" as Bush. But Chavez seemed to change his tone this weekend, indicating he'd be open to dialogue with Obama.

This high-stakes race has led to some violence, including tear-gas attacks on the offices of the Vatican and an opposition media outlet, which government supporters have claimed responsibility for (and which Chávez has condemned). Across the country, skirmishes between police and demonstrators who oppose the president have been reported by local media.

Still, Sunday’s vote has been largely peaceful. In Petare, lines were short and no incidences of violence were reported. A representative of the National Electoral Council, not authorized to speak on the record, says voting nationwide has gone smoothly.

Voting centers, which close at 5:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, opened on time and results are not expected before 9 p.m.

“We are a peaceful country, and we will abide by whatever results come,” says Ms. Abreu.

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