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.

At 1 a.m. the giant monitors in the room switched to the office of the Electoral Council. Tibisay Lucena, the council's head, appeared before the cameras to announce to the nation that the "no" forces had won by the slimmest of margins: 1.4 percent separated the "no" from the "si." A difference of little more than 100,000 votes.

After harnessing every mechanism of government within his reach to win this referendum, Chavez had lost.

A moment later the red shirts stood at attention.

In walked the burly president, a sober and intense look on his face.

His detractors had predicted Chavez would fix the vote if he could not win it honestly and they said disdainfully he certainly could not lose graciously. Yes, Chavez had failed when he tried to orchestrate a 1992 coup attempt, but since becoming president in 1998 he had never faced defeat.

But the wily president who loves to crack jokes had a surprise in store: He accepted defeat graciously.

"This was a photo finish," he said, noting that unlike past Venezuelan leaders he would accept the people's decision. Chavez said he spent four hours agonizing over his options, but ultimately accepted that pushing for a recount could take days and would not be in the best interests of his country.

"To those who voted against my proposal, I thank them and congratulate them," said the president who has rarely shown a humble side.

To his supporters who had been primed for a victory party, he pleaded for calm and restraint. "I ask all of you to go home, know how to handle your victory."

In the streets outside the Presidential Palace the Chavistas, with their red caps, red T-shirts and red flags, walked around in stunned silence.

"It's difficult to accept this," said one woman as she cried, "but Chavez has not abandoned us, he'll still be there for us."

Across the city at the headquarters of the "no" campaign there was jubilation. "This reform was about democracy or totalitarian socialism, and democracy won," said opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said.

"At least now we have the guarantee that Chavez will leave power," said Valeria Aguirre, a 22-year-old student who had braved tear gas during street protests.

Back at Miraflores, Chavez concluded his remarks by echoing the combative words he uttered after he was jailed for that failed coup in 1992.

"For now, we couldn't," said Chavez. Six years after he first uttered those words he became president of Venezuela.

And then the president stood up and walked to the door. The red shirts applauded. Bolivar stared dispassionately into the chaotic room.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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