Power Grab or Reform? Venezuelans Debate Vote

You know there's something very wrong with a country when the immigration officer who meets you on arrival asks you a question that is clearly not part of her training.

"Quieres cambiar dolares?" asked the women in uniform behind the sleek modern immigration desk at Caracas Maiquetia International Airport.

"Do you want to change dollars?" she was asking me.

Usually immigration agents ask you where you are from, why you are entering their country. But in Venezuela, it is not business as usual. That became even clearer as I went to leave the airport and porters swarmed me. They were less interested in helping me with my bags than were in my currency. "Dolares?" asked one fingering an inch-thick wad of Venezuelan money he was eager to change. It was the same with the taxi drivers.

Venezuela's currency is the bolivar (named after Simon Bolivar, who liberated the country from the Spanish almost 200 years ago.) The official exchange rate is 2,150 bolivars to the U.S. dollar. On the black market a dollar can get 5,000 or even 6,000 bolivars.

Surely this is not what Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez meant when he promised a Bolivarian socialist revolution after being elected in 1998.

Today there is only one topic of conversation in this country: the referendum. Chavez is asking Venezuelans to endorse 69 proposed changes to the country's constitution, including a vast increase of presidential powers, an end to presidential term limits and a form of communal property ownership.

He said he needs the reforms to implement his Bolivarian socialism. His opponents say Chavez is trying to use the democratic process to impose a dictatorship and positioning himself to be president for life.

With his trademark red Guayabera, Chavez has fashioned himself as the advocate of the underdog. It is a legitimate role in a country that is very rich -- Venezuela has the second largest oil reserves in the world -- yet sees so much of its vast wealth concentrated in the hands of so few.

Just in case Venezuelans don't already know how to vote, the streets here are filled with signs and billboards screaming "Si!" So are the television stations under government control. There is nothing subtle about the Chavez campaign to win Sunday's vote.

Yet the latest polls suggest he could lose. The "no" forces that seemed so scattered just a few weeks ago have united in recent days as some key Chavez leftist allies have defected, denouncing the referendum as a "power grab."

There is another sign of discontent on the streets. Walk into a supermarket in this city and you're almost certain to see empty shelves. Basic staples like milk, eggs, sugar and cooking oil can't be found.

By imposing price controls Chavez thought he could win allies among the poor. Instead those staples have resurfaced on the black market at two and three times their official price.

Just like the Venezuelan bolivar.