World and Nation

Thousands Protest Thursday As Chavez Seeks More Power

Three days before a referendum that would vastly expand the powers of President Hugo Chavez, this city’s streets were packed on Thursday with tens of thousands of opponents to the change. The protests signaled that Venezuelans may be balking at placing so much authority in the hands of one man.

Even some of Chavez’s most fervent supporters are beginning to show signs of hesitation at backing the constitutional changes he is promoting, which would end term limits for the president and greatly centralize his authority. Other measures would increase social security benefits for the poor and shorten the workday.

New fissures are emerging among what was once a cohesive bloc of supporters, pointing to the toughest test at the polls for Chavez in his 9-year presidency.

In the slums of the capital, where some of the president’s staunchest backers live amid the cinder-block hovels, debate over the changes has grown more intense in recent days.

“Chavez is delirious if he thinks we’re going to follow him like sheep,” said Ivonne Torrealba, 29, a hairdresser in the gritty Coche district, who has supported Chavez in every election, since his first presidential campaign in 1998. “If this government cannot get me milk or asphalt for our roads, how is it going to give my mother a pension?”

Both Chavez, a self-described socialist who has won previous elections by wide margins, and his critics say opinion polls show they will prevail, suggesting a highly contentious outcome. But departing from its practice in last year’s presidential election, Venezuela did not invite electoral observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union, opening the government to claims of fraud if Chavez wins.

The intensified polarization has altered Caracas’ appearance, with graffiti of “Si” by the president’s supporters competing with “No” scrawled throughout Caracas. A pro-Chavez march is scheduled here for Friday before the frenetic campaigning around the referendum ends. Polls are to close at 5 p.m. Sunday, with results expected as early as that evening.

Chavez and senior officials here have exhibited increasingly erratic behavior ahead of the referendum. Chavez has lashed out at leaders in Colombia and Spain and asked for an investigation into whether CNN was seeking to incite an assassination attempt against him.

Reports of such plots are not in short supply here. The main state television network also broadcast coverage this week of a memorandum in Spanish that it claimed had been written by the CIA in which destabilization plans against Chavez were laid out. U.S. involvement in Venezuelan politics remains a particularly issue here, after the Bush administration tacitly supported a coup in 2002 that briefly ousted Chavez.

“We reject and are disappointed in the Venezuelan government’s allegations that the United States is involved in any type of conspiracy to affect the outcome of the constitutional referendum,” Benjamin Ziff, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here, said in a statement.