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Venezuela's Opposition Sees Opening in Reform Vote


Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has vowed to press ahead with a set of socialist reforms despite the voters' rejection of a constitutional referendum on December 2. Opposition leaders say they hope to seize on the president's election defeat to begin forming a credible alternative to Mr. Chavez. VOA's Brian Wagner has this report.

Immediately after the defeat of the constitutional reform plan, Mr. Chavez said the vote showed the will of the people. But days later, he vowed to pursue the reforms and he lashed out at opposition leaders and the United States, whom he accused of seeking to interfere in the vote.

"Yes, I did take a hit," Mr. Chavez told one group. "But I have not moved one millimeter and I have not been weakened. The U.S. empire should worry that their blows do not weaken me, but strengthen me."

U.S. officials denied any attempts to influence the vote. But officials had expressed concern the reforms, which include ending term limits on the presidency, would weaken democracy in the South American nation.

Tuesday, President Bush said the vote was a boost for Venezuela's institutions."The Venezuelan people rejected one-man rule. They voted for democracy," he said.

The December 2 vote was the first election defeat for Mr. Chavez since he took office more than eight years ago. Political scientist Anibal Romero of Metropolitan University of Caracas says voters see the loss as an important sign. "President Chavez had an aura of invincibility, but now that he has been defeated at the ballot box, I believe many more voters will turn out to vote in the next election," said Romero.

University students had led opposition to the vote, saying the changes were a distraction to problems like inflation, food shortages and crime.

Student leader Miguel Ponte said there is a new opportunity for dialogue between the opposition and mostly poor, pro-government sectors. "We should approach those in the poor communities who voted against the constitutional reform. We need to build a consensus that addresses the people's needs," he said.

Opposition groups say they may consider some of the president's reform plans in the future. But they say voters are growing tired of his calls for socialist revolution and alliances with Iran and other leftist nations in an effort to counter U.S. interests.

Political scientist Romero says Sunday's vote confirms how much Venezuelan voters are willing to accept. "If Mr. Chavez does not adopt a more democratic style and abandon his radical rhetoric, then I fear his government may collapse," he added.

Mr. Chavez has shown little inclination to change and has vowed to pursue his socialist policies even if it costs him the presidency or his life.

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