Former Chavez Supporters Turning Against Him

The coming referendum on turning Venezuela into the personal fiefdom of President Hugo Chavez may not be quote the sure thing that most experts were predicting just a few weeks ago.

Recent defections of long time Chavez supporters who oppose his plan to alter the constitution and place enormous power into the president's hands may have convinced many in the opposition to go to the
polls and vote:

Few associates had been as loyal to President Hugo Chávez as the governor of the coastal state of Sucre, Ramón Martínez. And few are now more determined to defeat Chávez as he campaigns for constitutional changes that, if approved by voters on Sunday, could extend his presidency for life.

Chávez, 53 and in his ninth tumultuous year in office, was until recently predicted to win a referendum that would permit him to run for 8office indefinitely, appoint governors to federal districts he would create, and control the purse strings of one of the world's major oil-producing countries.

But Martínezand a handful of others who once were prominent pillars in the Chávez machine, have defected, saying approval of 69 constitutional changes would effectively turn Venezuela into a dictatorship run at the whim of one man. They have been derided by Chávez as traitors, but their unimpeachable leftist credentials have given momentum to a movement that pollsters say may deliver Chávez his first electoral defeat.

"The proposal would signify a coup d'etat," said Martínez, 58, whose dapper appearance belies his history as a guerrilla and Communist Party member. "Here the power is going to be concentrated in one person. That's very grave."
More importantly, one of Chavez's most loyal generals has also turned against him:
The biggest blow to Chávez came when retired Gen. Raúl Baduel, 52, turned against him this month. Chávez, Baduel and two other young army officers formed a clandestine anti-government group 25 years ago that eventually spawned the movement that ushered Chávez into power.

Later, as an army commander, Baduel remained loyal to Chávez during a brief 2002 coup that had tacit support from the Bush administration. Baduel said he remained loyal to Chávez because the coup was unconstitutional, and that he has now broken with the president for the same reason. He says a new constitution can be drafted by only an elected constituent assembly.
A respected polling firm in Caracas now puts the anti-referendum forces in the lead.

But it should be remembered that Chavez controls the electoral machinery and has not been above playing with the ballots in the past. Voting machine irregularities have been verified by independent groups - and this was when Chavez didn't exercise the iron clad control he has now.

Some Venezuelan bloggers say it doesn't matter what the polls show, Chavez will win with more than 60% of the vote. They say he will find some way to come out on top - even if he has to rig the election.

Or, Chavez could cancel the referendum at the last minute and blame it on the US, perhaps even declaring victory anyway. At this point, anything is possible.