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Daily Archives: December 3, 2007

Venezuela votes on giving Chavez wider powers

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Venezuelans cast ballots yesterday in a contentious referendum President Hugo Chavez hopes will bolster his powers in order to turn the oil-rich country into a socialist economy.

Among the more controversial constitutional reforms proposed by Chavez is a measure to scrap his two-term limit, opening the way for him to realize his ambition of becoming Venezuela's president-for-life.

The referendum is the biggest electoral challenge the 53-year-old former paratrooper has faced in eight years in power.

Protests to his constitutional changes have gathered strength in the past weeks, and several allies have defected to join the opposition.

Projections suggested the result was too close to call. Voting was to end at 4:00 pm (2000 GMT).

The fiercely anti-liberal Chavez, a friend to Iran and Cuba's Fidel Castro, claims the United States has plans to disrupt polling, and has threatened to halt all oil exports if violence he perceives instigated by the CIA breaks out.

He has labeled those against him "traitors" and, in his final campaign speech Friday, said: "A vote 'yes' is a vote for Chavez — a vote 'no' is a vote for (US President) George W. Bush."

He also said he wanted to remain president "until 2050," if the people backed him.

In a news conference Saturday, Chavez confirmed he would halt oil exports if he saw US meddling.

"There will be no oil for anyone, and the price per barrel will go up to 200 dollars," he said.

Venezuela, an OPEC member, currently exports around 60 percent of its oil to the United States. The trade is worth 37 billion dollars a year at current prices, and supplies about 11 percent of US oil needs.

The country produces 2.6 million barrels of oil per day, according to US energy department figures, or 3.2 million barrels, according to official Venezuelan numbers.

Surveys suggested a near-even split among the country's 16 million voters going into the referendum.

The 69 reforms they are being asked to approve include lengthening the presidential mandate from six years to seven, allowing the government to censor the media in times of emergency, and permitting the expropriation of property.

Many voters were woken before dawn by trucks blaring recordings of trumpet revelries. In Caracas, fireworks crumped over the skyline to rouse residents.

More than 100,000 soldiers were deployed across the country. Unlike in past polling, there were no EU or Organization of American States election monitors, only international observers invited by the government.

One of Chavez's strongest critics is his former defense minister, Raul Baduel, who wrote a tract published Saturday by the New York Times newspaper.

"Venezuela will thrive only when all its citizens truly have a stake in society. Consolidating more power in the presidency through insidious constitutional reforms will not bring that about.

"That's why the Venezuelan people should vote 'no,'" he wrote.

But Tulio Hernandez, a professor at the Ventral University of Venezuela, said Chavez's personal charisma, recognized by supporters and enemies alike, could play a crucial role.

"People have never voted to support his socialist projects," Hernandez said. "But he is a living incarnation of the savior, which is a very Latin American tradition."

The stocky Chavez has called Jesus Christ his inspiration, and Simon Bolivar, the 19th century Venezuelan who helped spread independence from Spanish colonial rule across much of Latin America, his guide.

UN mission for Darfur months behind schedule

Preparations for the UN peacekeeping mission to Darfur are running months behind schedule and barely a third of the planned number of forces will deploy on time, its commander said Saturday.

"It was stated that by the end of August we would know all the troop contribution countries. Today we're in December. We don't know so you can see how many months we are behind," General Martin Luther Agwai told reporters.

Best case scenario would be 9,000 personnel on the ground when the mandate begins on January 1, but that will include the some 6,200 troops currently in Darfur in the African Union mission to merge into the UN command he said.

Nine thousand is just over a third of the 26,000 envisaged for the joint African Union-United Nations force and the number that Agwai, from Nigeria, described the "barest minimum of what is required."

Getting the force off the ground has been beset by logistics problems and still no country has donated any of the 24 helicopters — vital if the mission across territory the size of Texas — is to be effective.

"In any society if people are disappointed that will be expressed in so many ways. One of them could be in a violent way and then all of us trying to save Darfur will go back to square one," said Agwai.

"If we're going to have another round of violence in Darfur then that would be unfortunate," he said.

The United Nations has complained that Sudanese government red tape and lack of resources are delaying the deployment of the peacekeepers.

Khartoum has also refused to accept contingents from Scandinavia, Thailand and Nepal as part of the majority African force.

War between black tribes and government-backed Arabs has left more than 200,000 people dead from fighting, famine and disease since 2003, according to international organisations.

Another 2.2 million have been displaced in what the United Nations has called the biggest humanitarian crisis facing the world today.