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Chavez fails to become "eternal president"

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has suffered a stinging defeat in a vote on constitutional changes that would have let him run for re-election indefinitely.

Voters rejected the sweeping reforms by a margin of 51% to 49% – a rebuff by the slimmest margin for a man bent on ruling for life in Venezuela.

As the exit polls came in, Chavez supporters buoyed by early figures took to the streets to celebrate. When the result became clear the Venezuelan president conceded, but in his usual emphatic style.

The left-wing leader, a fierce critic of the United States and a close ally of communist Cuba, has never lost a national vote.

But the referendum on a raft of reforms would among other things have allowed him to run for re-election indefinitely, control foreign currency reserves and censor the media and it proved a step too far.

An emboldened opposition and even some former long-time allies say the move is authoritarian.

Opposing rallies emphasised the divide.

One of the opposition protesters in New York Peter Aranguren said that “we are here because we want to support Venezuela's youth. We are for freedom. We don't want an unjust Venezuela. We want a just and free Venezuela, free of any harm that could be done to our country.”

More than 16 million Venezuelans were registered to vote, including some living abroad, who cast ballots at embassies from Nicaragua to Germany.

As ever, red clad Chavinistas were emboldened behind their leader.

One of them, Jose Diaz claimed that “the current President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez is the only one who can do something for Venezuela's people. There is no one else able to show he is able to help the Venezuelan people. Only President Chavez can do something for Venezuelans at the moment.”