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By Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS Feb 7 Tens of thousands of Venezuelans
streamed through the streets of Caracas on Saturday to protest
leftist President Hugo Chavez's second attempt to change the
constitution to let him govern as long as he wins elections.
Opinion polls gave a slight lead to Chavez before a Feb. 15
vote on whether to allow the president and other politicians to
run for re-election as many times as they like in South
America's top oil exporter.
Voters rejected a similar proposal in 2007.
The march, under the slogan "No is no" and led by
anti-government students and political parties that say Chavez
will turn Venezuela into a version of communist Cuba, was the
largest by the opposition in more than a year.
"This reform hides, as President Chavez himself has said,
the start of what would be a country, a state with a
Castro-communist system," said Manuel Rosales, a former
opposition presidential candidate.
If he loses, Chavez would leave office in four years, but
he does not rule out trying again to change the electoral law.
Another referendum defeat for him could embolden opponents
and increase resistance to unpopular spending cuts or a
currency devaluation that analysts say might result if oil
income stays low.
Chavez, a vocal critic of the United States, is close
friends with ex-Cuban leader Fidel Castro and provides Cuba
with cheap oil in return for doctors and advisers.
But Chavez denies he will prohibit private property and
notes the government still works with foreign oil companies.
March organizers said hundreds of thousands of people took
part, while government television said turnout was low.
"If we did a march, we would have 100 times the people they
brought today," Chavez said during door-to-door campaigning in
a poor Caracas neighborhood. He wore a baseball jersey with the
word "Yes" emblazoned in red across his chest.
Protesters complained about a large rise in violent crime
under Chavez and wore shirts emblazoned with the phrase "I also
want to be president." Many carried Venezuela's red, yellow and
blue flag in the march that stretched from the edge of the
city's largest slum to a wealthy business district.
'21ST CENTURY SOCIALISM'
Chavez has nationalized industries and raised spending on
health and welfare since he took office in 1999 but says he
needs more time to build what he calls "21st century socialism"
in one of the principal oil suppliers to the United States.
Still popular with about half of the population, he has
amassed considerable power and most institutions are run by his
allies. Opponents say Chavez is authoritarian and will turn
people's homes and possessions over to the state.
Chavez has won multiple elections in the past decade and
survived a brief coup, a months-long shutdown of the vital oil
industry and a recall referendum.
Despite large street marches, the opposition only recently
made gains against Chavez, defeating the 2007 referendum and
winning seats in state and city elections last year.
Apparently confident of victory, Chavez has toned down his
usually aggressive rhetoric against the opposition in recent
days and said on Friday he welcomed the opposition march.
Despite a spate of police clashes with students,
campaigning by both sides has been mainly low key.
(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Peter Cooney)