Tension, Then Surprise, Chavez Loses Reform Vote

It was a sea of red in the in the press room of Miraflores Palace, the official residence of Venezuela's president.

Not only the red carpet, the red chairs, the red poinsettia flowers (conveniently, it is Christmas season) but also the guards, attaches and state media, all dressed in the bright red of Chavistas, the loyal leftist followers of Venezuela's controversial and charismatic president, Hugo Chavez.

Chavez has made his red guayabera shirt a signature of his presidency. Just as he's made his blustery rhetoric part of his enormous populist appeal.

Last year Chavez called George Bush "the devil." Three weeks ago an exasperated King Juan Carlos of Spain publicly chided Chavez for his constant interruptions at a summit, the king's now-famous scolding to Chavez: Por que no te callas? In English: "Why don't you shut up?"

And this week Chavez traded insults with the president of neighboring Colombia, saying Colombians deserved better.

And so Venezuelans were left to wonder what their mercurial president would do if he lost the referendum that he so clearly wanted to win. Because his country is a major supplier of oil to the United States and holds the world's second-largest oil reserves, this was not simply some minor regional curiosity.

After nine years in office and a year after his most recent election victory, Chavez was asking about 16 million registered voters to say "si" or yes to a massive overhaul of this country's constitution. If approved, the referendum would give Chavez control over the Central Bank, the right to suspend civil liberties and freedom of the press and the right to take over private land and potentially position him to be president for life.

Chavez said he needed the reforms to implement his aggressive Bolivarian Socialist agenda. His detractors said he was using democracy to become a dictator.

So for nine agonizing hours Venezuelans anxiously waited for Chavez to appear at the desk facing the cameras in the palace press room. Behind that desk a puzzled and unflattering portrait of Venezuelan Liberator Simon Bolivar looked on with a blank stare.

Bolivar, a national hero, is credited with creating the Venezuelan state almost 200 years ago. On this night he bore silent witness to one of the most important moments in his nation's modern history.

By midnight — eight hours after the polls had closed — the opposition "no" forces were demanding to know why the National Electoral Council still did not have results to announce. This country has a modern and sophisticated system of electronic voting machines that print paper backup ballots for added security. Even before the vote began, graffiti across Caracas accused the Electoral Council of perpetrating fraud.

After so many hours, it was clear the race was close. Opposition forces were cautiously jubilant. The president's supporters uncharacteristically subdued.

In the press room at Miraflores, the red-shirted cadre suddenly came to attention. One man efficiently carried a cup full of pencils and pens and placed it delicately on the desk in front of Bolivar's portrait. Security guards, their red guayaberas bulging with guns and bulletproof vests, quietly took their positions around the room. State television reporters — who had been co-opted by Chavez to push and promote a "si" vote throughout the campaign — looked downright funereal as they prepared to report the results.

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