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Venezuela's New Constitution

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AP
A day after it passed in an historic referendum, Venezuela's new constitution was praised by President Hugo Chavez, who promised the document would end a "nefarious" era of rule by a corrupt oligarchy. But critics warned the new constitution could help usher in an authoritarian regime.

With 82 percent of ballots counted from Wednesday's referendum, 71 percent voted in favor of the new constitution and 29 percent voted against it. The voting took place amid torrential rains that caused flooding and mudslides that left at least 18 people dead, 23 missing and 10,500 homeless.

Chavez, a former coup leader who is wildly popular among millions of Venezuela's poor but is feared as a dictator-in-the-making by the country's wealthy elites, hailed the referendum results as a new start for the impoverished South American nation - home to the Western Hemisphere's largest oil reserves.

"Thank God a nefarious era is ending today," he said in a nationally televised address after initial results were released. "A republic of the oligarchy is ending."

But he also said "there is no reason to celebrate," because of the deaths caused by the flooding.

The heavy rains forced officials to delay poll closings by two hours and may have dampened turnout.

With his impressive victory Wednesday, Chavez achieved what has eluded most Latin American revolutionaries for decades: the elimination of the old political order and the creation of a new state.

"For the first time, common Venezuelans are going to have a lot of privileges. Before, the ones who had privileges were the rich and the politicians," housewife Angela de Garcia, 34, said after casting her "yes" ballot in the western Caracas slum of Catia.

The new constitution increases workers wages, boosts Indians' rights, increases environmental protection, and gives housewives the status of workers, guaranteeing them social security benefits.

Chavez says the charter also will help wipe out some of the world's worst corruption and break up the stranglehold of political parties that most Venezuelans blame for squandering the country's oil reserves.

But the constitution also eliminates the Senate, reduces civilian control of the military and allows Chavez to serve up to 13 years in office and dissolve the single-house National Assembly under certain circumstances. Critics say it will allow Chavez, a former paratrooper who led a failed 1992 coup, to impose authoritarian rule.

"A gang of idiots has taken power ... and is taking us toward an absurd political, social and economic scheme, thanks to their ignorance," office administrator Juan Gonzalez, 46, said at a voting station in the affluent Caracas neighborhood of Los Palos Grandes, where anti-Chavez sentiment was strong.

The bitter campaign for the referendum divided the country largely along class lines, and Chavez's detractors accused him of deiberately polarizing the nation. Chavez compared his opponents to a "truckload of squealing pigs," said businessmen were members of a "rancid oligarchy," and called Roman Catholic Church officials "degenerate priests"

On Wednesday night, his supporters indicated it may be time to make peace with their political enemies.

"There's an important expression of dissidence and it must be paid attention to," said Aristobulo Isturiz, a leader of the Chavez-controlled, 131-member assembly that drafted the constitution.

The new constitution will lead to elections early next year for the National Assembly, governorships and mayorships. With Chavez's approval ratings at 80 percent, his leftist Patriotic Pole is expected to dominate those races.

The new charter extends presidential terms from five to six years and eliminates the current ban on immediate re-election. With Chavez in power for nearly a year already, he now has the chance to rule for another 12 years.

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