Buenos Aires (CNSNews.com) - Following a series of violent clashes between the supporters and opponents of controversial constitutional amendments in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has stepped up threats against critics ahead of Sunday's referendum on the changes.
A 19-year-old oil worker, Jose Oliveros, was shot dead Monday after he tried to drive a truck along a road blocked by demonstrators demanding that Venezuelans to vote "no" in the referendum. Police blamed the death on anti-Chavez protestors.
The constitutional "reform" entails modifying 69 sections of the current 350-section constitution. The more politically sensitive changes include eliminating presidential term limits, stripping the autonomy of the Central Bank, and renaming the army as a "Bolivarian and anti-imperialist" force -- the latter in reference to the United States, which Chavez calls "the empire.")
On Tuesday, Chavez turned on the country's largest business chamber, Fedecamaras, threatening to seize businessmen's assets if they continued to challenge his government.
He was reacting to Fedecamaras chairman Jose Manuel Gonzalez' call for voters to oppose the constitutional changes.
Pollster Jose Gil Yepez of Datanalisis - a firm that predicted recent election results the most accurately - said late last week that the "no" camp is currently ahead of the "yes" camp by between 12 and 16 percentage points.
He attributed the growing opposition to a realization that voters were being asked to vote yes or no to all 69 changes.
"Seventy-five percent of Venezuelans are saying they want to vote section-by-section," he added.
Nearly 16 million Venezuelans can vote on Sunday although doing so is not compulsory.
The president in a recent speech warned that opponents were planning to take to the streets and claim fraud after the referendum produces a "yes" result. He said the armed forces and others must be on the alert for attempts to destabilize the country.
Vice President Jorge Rodriguez told a gathering of supporters, "We know what they are planning in view of how desperate they are, because they know the Venezuelan people, the vast majority, will support the constitution[al changes] on December 2."
"How is it possible that they plan on killing people, blocking streets and establishing violence?" the state-run Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias news agency quoted him as saying.
Chavez also has claimed to be the target of an assassination plot. He told a state-owned television channel that someone had gone to an unnamed Central American country's embassy two weeks ago and said Chavez would be targeted by an assassin before the end of the year.
During a recent public appearance, Chavez claimed, traces of light had been detected on his body, apparently indicating the use of telescopic rifle sights.
"The most crazy minds are thinking of leading us to a civil war that would justify U.S. intervention," he said. "We are trying to avoid it."
Some critics of the president believe he is becoming increasingly worried that the referendum may fail.
"Even though this reform was intended to divide Venezuelans even more, what it has accomplished is to unite many sectors [against it], including many of the president's followers," Maria Corina Machado, head of an opposition civil rights organization, Sumate, told Venezuelan Union Radio.
Among opponents of the constitutional amendments, Chavez has come up against cardinals and bishops of the Catholic Church.
Chavez in a television interview rejected arguments that the changes could affect freedom of religion, and repeated his stance that Christ is a "revolutionary" and "socialism is mainly Christian."
"The capitalism defended by the cardinals is anti-Christian," he added.
In a new statement this week, the archdiocese of Caracas expressed concern about violence levels and said "offenses, insults and threats against the Archbishop of Caracas [Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino] ... are an offense to Catholics, and to all people who respect human dignity."
The Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) said in a report this week that the increased tensions of recent weeks have "cast some doubt on whether Chavez possesses the knack to work public relations in his favor."
"His weak point always has been more due to an unstable style than a lack of substance;" wrote director Larry Birns and research associate Montana James. "He easily is the most innovative public figure operating in Latin America today, in addition to being the most rambunctious."
Meanwhile, Bolivian President Evo Morales, a close Chavez alley, has pushed through his own constitutional changes, which passed in a weekend constitutional assembly vote that was boycotted by opposition parties. Clashes between supporters and opponents reportedly cost four lives.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack in a statement urged "the Bolivian government and the opposition to show restraint and tolerance during this critical period."
Morales has alienated the opposition by pushing changes to the constitution that, like those proposed for Venezuela, will allow him indefinite terms in office. He says it will also give greater power to the country's indigenous majority.
(CNSNews International Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)
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