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Chavez Fights Back After Recent Referendum Loss

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

By most accounts, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was graceful when he accepted the defeat of his constitutional reforms last weekend. But by mid-week, that kinder, gentler Chavez was gone.

From Caracas, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE McCARTHY: The various personas of Hugo Chavez were on display this week. Sunday saw a chastened Chavez seated before long-faced ministers, don't be sad. The difference in votes was microscopic, he told them. It was just 1.4 percent.

A magnanimous Chavez then turned to the opposition, reassuring them that he would honor the results.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Speaking in Spanish)

McCARTHY: I hope that those leaders of the opposition who have been nervous and thinking that I would not recognize this reality or that we would prolong this agony, feel peaceful and content. He told them to go home and celebrate what they have to celebrate, in a healthy way.

Explaining why Venezuelans had voted down his sweeping constitutional reforms that would have allowed him unlimited reelection and speeded Venezuela's march toward socialism, Chavez said, the ideas were audacious, and admitted, there were doubts and fears.

The statesman-like demeanor was a sharp departure from the pugnacious Chavez on the referendum campaign trail, where he ridiculed the opposition as lackeys of Washington, and warns supporters that if they voted against him, they would be regarded as traitors to the revolution.

Dmitri Oborsner(ph), professor emeritus at the Central University of Venezuela, says the 180-degree turn in tone on the night of his concession speech was vintage Chavez.

Professor DMITRI OBORSNER (Professor Emeritus, Central University of Venezuela): He has an amazing capability to switch from a very aggressive, confrontational tone to a sudden mired style where he sounds like the perfect democrat, and one wonders whether it's really the same man. But so far, as experience has shown that these times of miredness(ph) are usually very short-lived.

McCARTHY: In fact, barely 72 hours had elapsed and Chavez's congeniality had evaporated. He attacked claims by some in the opposition that the tally from Sunday's vote was the result of a deal made under pressure from some elements in the army.

In the joint news conference with the high command, Chavez had some choice words for the opposition, so choice, they had to be bleeped out.

President CHAVEZ: (Speaking in Spanish)

(Soundbite of bleep)

McCARTHY: You should administer your victory properly. But already, you are covering it in (bleep). It's a (bleep) victory, he said. And ours call it defeat is a defeat of courage, valor and dignity. We haven't moved a millimeter, and we won't.

President CHAVEZ: (Speaking in Spanish)

McCARTHY: The headline in today's leading opposition newspaper Tal Cual blared, the government is (bleep). New vulgarisms have been decreed for this revolution with words such as democracy, liberty and consensus that are considered disgusting, the paper said. Pollster and economist Luis Vicente Leon said President Chavez's only electoral defeat in nine years has dulled his political sheen.

Mr. LUIS VICENTE LEON (Pollster, Economist): He was like an idol and so strong. He never lost - almost a god, you know. And now, he is just a normal guy who could lose.

McCARTHY: Even staunch Chavez loyalist and national deputy Luis Tascon says that the referendum defeat showed the president to be, quote, "is a historical leader also a human being."

Tascon wants a reassessment of the Chavismo movement and a more pluralistic path to reform that would remove those, he says, who have lost touch with the people.

Mr. LUIS TASCON (Deputy, National Assembly): (Through translator) Inside Chavismo, they are constructing an elite of power at all levels too - a regional elite, the municipal elite and national elite. But like all elites, it's beginning to be removed from the reality of the people. For example, for members of the powerful elite, the problem of personal security doesn't exist because they are surrounded by guards watching their backs.

McCARTHY: Chavez has minimized the defeat and warned that he'll renew the fight to advance his socialist agenda by other means. As one analyst put it, he lost a battle but not the war.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.