Turnout strong for referendum to give Chavez more power

Venezuelans were voting Sunday on whether to give President Hugo Chavez the power he wants to advance his socialist revolution.

Venezuelanslined up Sunday to vote in a referendum on sweeping changes to the country's constitution that wouldgive President Hugo Chavez greater power and the right to seek re-election indefinitely.

A victory wouldstrengthen Chavez in his efforts to speed up his socialist revolution, but most polls conducted recently have shown amajority of Venezuelans rejecting the 69 proposed amendments to the constitution.

The changes would scrap the existing two-term limit for presidents, extend each term from six to seven years, endthe autonomy of Venezuela's central bank and allow the president to handpick provincial and municipal leaders.

According tothe president,constitutional reform is needed to complete the country's transition to a socialist state.

The 69 changes include:
  • Eliminating limits on the president's term, which now require Chavez to step down in2012.
  • Allowing the president to pick provincial and municipal leaders.
  • Creating a maximum six-hour work day.
  • Lowering the voting age from 18 to 16.
  • Giving the president's office control over the central bank.
  • Creating communal property.
  • Allowing the government to censor media if it declares a political emergency.

Two pro-Chavez officials told The Associated Press their exit polls show a victory for the reforms, but an opposition campaign official saidtheir poll shows Chavez headed for defeat. All spoke on condition of anonymity because of election rules barring the early release of results.

Chavez was first elected in 1998 after portraying himself as a champion of the poor who would redistribute the country's oil wealth to needy neighbourhoods.

However, while Venezuela may be flushwith petroleum dollars, shortages in basic goods such as milk and eggs are becoming more common.

In the capital Caracas, CBC journalist Connie Watson talked to one shopper at ahigh-end supermarket who said shewasfinally able to buy milk after going without fortwo months.

"There's no toilet paper, no cooking oil, sugar — andbeef and chicken are hard to find, too," said Rosario Ruiz, who spent more than an hourwaiting to be served.

Producers taking loss

To combat double-digit inflation, the government controls the prices of many of the most basic items, andproducers are taking a loss to supply the public with food.

Grocer Alberto Cabral said it'salso difficult to get soap, detergent, tomato sauce and mayonnaise. The situation has been critical for six months, he said.

"Before, the people were happy,"Cabral said. "They had a lot of money. They ate well— but in these last few months, life is getting pretty difficult."

Cabral said his family market has been in business for 50 years and has never lived through so many shortages at once.

After queuing up for food, Ruiz put her ration of one litre of liquid milk and one can of powdered milk in her car, a vehicle that only costs about one dollar to fill up with gas.

"We have oil, but we don't have food," she said. "And you can't eat oil."

Last week, tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Caracasto protest against the referendum. Elias Matt, a former legislator who took part inthe protest, said Chavez is holding the vote in a bid to imposetotalitarianism.

Some 140,000 soldiers and reservists were posted for the vote, the Defence Ministry said.

With files from the Associated Press