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Venezuela's students lead anti-Chávez charge

Venezuelans vote Sunday on President Hugo Chávez's plan to scrap term limits on his rule.

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University student Elena Mela had never protested in her life.

But last week she joined thousands of students in the streets of Caracas to fight against Sunday's referendum on President Hugo Chávez's plan to scrap term limits on his rule. "This will change our entire country," says Ms. Mela. "I will keep fighting for my values."

Despite recent polls showing a decline in support for Mr. Chávez's proposed constitutional reforms, most analysts say he will prevail. But unlike other chapters in his eight-year reign, the growing opposition among students and even from members within his own party – including a longtime ally and former general – could signal that he is pushing changes too fast and too hard.

"There is a fairly widespread discontent, whichdoesn't have much political expression as of now," says Edgardo Lander, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela. "I think this is a serious problem because the legitimacy of the Venezuelan government up to now has to a great extent come from the fact that they have never gone beyond the constitution. Now for the first time there is a break in constitutional norms. I think it will eventually weaken the government."

In addition to abolishing presidential term limits, Chávez's proposed reforms would lower the voting age to 16 from 18, reduce the workday from eight to six hours, and establish Venezuela as a socialist state, among scores of other changes.

The referendum has provoked an enormous – and at times tense – display of people power. One man was shot dead on Monday as he tried to drive his truck through an area blocked by protesters.

Among a fractured opposition, students have emerged as the most cohesive antireferendum force.


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