CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez appeared to hold a narrow lead on the eve of a referendum on whether to remove term limits and permit Chavez, who's been president for 10 years, to seek re-election in 2012 and beyond.
The latest polls, which by law can't be made public this close to the election, give the president a slight advantage in his bid to remain in power indefinitely. Venezuelans narrowly defeated his first attempt to scrap term limits in December 2007.
The Sunday referendum is being closely watched in Washington and throughout Latin America because Chavez is an ally of Cuba, leads an anti-America bloc of countries and has said that he needs to remain president for at least another decade to carry out what he calls "21st Century Socialism."
Further inflaming passions on both sides, a conservative Spanish lawmaker was shoved into a car, driven to the airport and put on the next flight out of Venezuela Saturday for expressing fears that Chavez might engage in vote fraud.
Luis Herrero, a Spanish member of the European Parliament whom Chavez's opponents invited to observe the election, said Friday that the government's decision to keep voting booths open two hours later than normal seemed to invite vote fraud.
Herrero also likened Chavez to a "dictator" after he heard opposition mayors describe threatening comments Chavez made during the campaign.
Herrero's expulsion was necessary, Chavez said Saturday, because the Spanish parliamentarian had insulted Venezuelan election officials.
"I am confident that this lamentable incident carried out in an intentional manner by this disgraceful lawmaker doesn't tarnish the excellent relations that we have with the Spanish government and the Spanish people," Chavez said at a press conference.
The Spanish government Saturday protested Herrero's expulsion to the Venezuelan ambassador to Spain. Chavez's opponents in Venezuela and European lawmakers criticized Herrero's expulsion, which Luis Ignacio Planas, the secretary general of the opposition Copei party, called "an illegal abuse and a violation of the legislator's status."
Planas questioned why foreign presidents such as Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, all of whom are allied with Chavez, could come to Venezuela and call for a YES vote without the government considering those violations of Venezuelan sovereignty.
Speaking to reporters in Brazil, where he'd been sent Saturday, Herrero continued to question the viability of democracy in Venezuela under Chavez.
Elections, Herrero told reporters, must be held "without coercion, without threats, without violence and in freedom — things that are evidently not taking place in the entire country."
Gunson is a special correspondent for The Miami Herald.
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