CARACAS (AFP) — Tens of thousands of people protesting a referendum they said would turn Venezuela into a version of communist Cuba marched through central Caracas Thursday, yelling slogans against President Hugo Chavez.
The mass demonstration -- the last before the referendum on Sunday -- denounced reforms that would allow Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely, gag the press in emergencies, and impose what he calls "economic socialism" on the country.
"It's not socialism -- it's communism, like the one they have in Cuba," said one protester, Virginia Zapata, a 29-year-old dentist.
Another, 71-year-old retiree Maruja Zamora de Grossman, said: "I'm marching against Chavez to leave a better country for my eight children, 23 grandchildren and my great-grandchild."
Around them, the crowd waved anti-Chavez banners and wore t-shirts with the words "Why don't you just shut up?" That was a reference to a slapdown King Juan Carlos of Spain gave Chavez at a summit earlier this month.
Venezuelan television showed a camera crew from a state channel jostled by protesters, and a gang of pro-Chavez militants assaulting demonstrators at a metro station entrance.
But the rally passed off without major incident, in contrast to protests earlier this month by university students that were broken up by teargas-firing police.
Tensions are flowing strongly as recent polls suggest a dead heat, or even that the "no" vote could triumph.
The result could be so close that many fear it will trigger street violence.
Unlike in past Venezuelan elections, international observers have not been invited to monitor balloting, opening the way for allegations of fraud.
Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition mayor of the upmarket Chacao district in Caracas, told reporters that "violence would only benefit the government."
Chavez, who has raised the pitch of his populist rhetoric as the referendum date nears, has vowed to "neutralize" any unrest. He has also called any who oppose his reforms "traitors."
The Venezuelan leader claims the US government is fomenting unrest to challenge the referendum, and possibly even have him assassinated.
His foreign minister went on television late Wednesday waving what he said was a Central Intelligence Agency plan to secure a "no" victory.
A spokesperson for the US State Department on Thursday urged all Venezuelans to exercise their "inalienable right" to vote in Sunday's referendum, but stopped short of suggesting how they should cast their ballots.
US-based Human Rights Watch warned Thursday in a statement that Chavez's constitutional amendments would enable him to "suspend basic rights indefinitely by maintaining a perpetual state of emergency ... in violation of international law."
According to the private polling institute Datanalisis, 44.6 percent of voters reject the constitutional reforms, while 30.8 percent are in favor.
Another survey firm, Hinterlaces, put the split as 46 percent against and 45 percent for.
"There is a sector of Chavez supporters who don't seem very enthused by the reforms. This doesn't mean that Chavez will lose the referendum, but the results will be much more ambivalent than in previous elections," one analyst, German Campos of the firm Consultores 30.11, told reporters.
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