Chavez tries again to lift term limits

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Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: On Sunday, Venezuelans vote in a national referendum. They'll decide whether their President, Hugo Chavez, can run again when his term ends in 2012. Chavez has already been in power for a decade. From the start, he established himself as a leader of the Latin America Left, a successor to Fidel Castro, and he's sought to undermine US dominance in the region. John Lyons covers Latin America for The Wall Street Journal. He's speaking to us from Caracas, Venezuela's capital. Now, Hugo Chavez will have been in power 13 years by the time his current term ends. Hasn't he already exceeded term limits in Venezuela?

JOHN LYONS: Many would say he has. However, one thing Chavez has been very good at is altering rules using national referendums since he was elected to office in '98. He's already changed the Constitution once and now he wants to do it again.

WERMAN: In 2007 he tried to extend his term limits. It didn't work then; what's the chance of it passing now?

LYONS: It's interesting you mention 2007. That was the first really stunning defeat at the ballot box for Chavez, and what was happening was kind of a growing discontent with his ability to make good on his promises. There were reports of corruption, declining services, uncollected trash piling up in the streets, soaring crime rates. Caracas is now the most violent capital city in the Americas. So as well in 2007, Chavez underestimated the discontent through his administration and didn't really pull out the stops when he was campaigning. Now, things are very different now. The city is a sea of pro-Chavez ? red t-shirts, signs, everywhere you look Chavez's face. In the tough neighborhoods in either end of the city, up in the hills, these kinds of small concrete shanty homes that you see in Latin America kind of up on steep hills, looking down on the city, are covered in pro-Chavez propaganda and his aides and vast election machines have been out in these communities and trying to make good on promises and finding ways to get them to the voting station on Sunday to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2007.

WERMAN: What is the turnout expected to be this weekend for this referendum?

LYONS: That's a big question. The hope on the side of the opposition is that many of these traditionally pro-Chavez Venezuelans in the poor neighborhoods don't show up at the polls to vote. That's what happened in 2007. Now, as I said, Chavez has really pulled out all the stops in order to make sure that his supporters are at the polls and voting. So it sure seems that Chavez is going to be able to get a fair number of his supporters out to vote and the turnout will be high.

WERMAN: Who are his principal opponents and do you think it's going to be a tight race?

LYONS: I think the race is going to be tight. The polls show Chavez with a slight lead. Chavez's opponents are the descendants of the traditional Venezuelan elite class, that were in power before him and Venezuela's small but significant middle class.

WERMAN: John Lyons, speaking to us from Caracas, Venezuela. He covers Latin America for The Wall Street Journal. John, thanks very much.

LYONS: Thanks for having me.