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Poor Venezuelans sold on change

After a year in office, President Chvez is still popular, and

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On a boulevard blocked off to traffic in decaying central Caracas, thousands of Venezuelans dance to Salsa bands and press bright round stickers exclaiming simply "S!" - "Yes" - to the foreheads, arms, and clothing of any unmarked passersby.

The happy crowd is part of the army of Venezuelans, many of them impoverished by decades of poor management of the country's vast oil wealth, expected to give an overwhelming s today to a new constitution fashioned by the populist former Army officer, President Hugo Chvez.

The downtown crowd - kids in knockoff Tommy Hilfiger fashions, adults in Chvez T-shirts - pushes through piles of campaign detritus and makeshift sausage stands, cheering when a rally leader proclaims that Venezuelans are about to approve "the best constitution in the world."

The rally and constitution it supports mark the revenge of the 80 percent of the population that has sunk below the country's poverty line over more than a decade of inefficient government, corruption scandals, and concentrating wealth. "This is a big party, because after 40 years of corruption and deception, the poor and middle classes are finally saying 'enough' to the politicians who robbed too much and left Venezuela in rags," says Manuel Hamilton, a Caracas municipal government administrator. "People voting 'no' are simply afraid of losing their illicit privileges."

Venezuelans opposed to the new constitution say it is at best ambiguous and opens the door to a concentration of power under President Chvez, reduces civil oversight of the military, and promotes a centralization of power when the rest of the world is decentralizing government. At worst, they say, it puts the country on the road to dictatorship and a statist economy doomed to Cuban-style economic ruin.

But the country's "no" forces are apparently resigned to the fact that a year after taking office, the red-bereted Chvez still commands a religious-like faith among the majority.


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