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Venezuelans vote on Chavez reforms

  • Story Highlights
  • Chavez, in trademark red shirt, says "for me, it's a very happy day"
  • At stake are 69 amendments proposed by Chavez
  • Chavez insists the majority of the country's 26 million people back him
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CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- Venezuelans turned out Sunday to vote on whether to approve broad constitutional changes that would bolster President Hugo Chavez's embrace of socialism and grant an indefinite extension of his eligibility to serve as president.

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez prepares to vote Sunday in Caracas.

It was not immediately clear how many of the 16 million Venezuelans eligible to vote actually did so, but the president of the National Electoral Counsel, Tibisay Lucena, said the process "shows the entire world that we are a democratic country."

In Caracas, Chavez -- clad in his trademark red shirt and cradling his grandson -- made the sign of the cross and voted, then took his paper ballot and placed it in a box.

"For me, it's a very happy day," he said.

He dipped his right pinky in ink, collected his paper receipt from the voting machine and then gave an uncharacteristically short talk with the news media.

"Let's wait for the results tonight," he told reporters. "We'll accept them, whatever they may be."

Chavez called Venezuela's electoral system "one of the most transparent in the world," and said its voting machines are among "the most modern of the world."

At stake are 69 amendments proposed by Chavez, who has said he wants to steer Venezuela toward full socialism -- a state his detractors describe as full totalitarianism.

The most controversial amendment would do away with term limits, thereby allowing the 53-year-old former paratrooper, who has already served almost eight years in power, to hold it indefinitely as long as he is re-elected. The amendments would also extend each term to seven years instead of the current six-year terms. Video Watch how U.S. is responding to Venezuelan election »

Current law would not allow Chavez to run again after his term ends in 2012.

In addition, the autonomous Central Bank would be placed under presidential control, and the maximum working day would be cut from eight hours to six hours.

Minimum voting age would also be cut from 18 years to 16 years.

As of 4 p.m. (3 p.m. ET), the voting centers were closed to new voters. Those with voters still in line were to remain open until everyone had cast ballots.

In general, the process appeared orderly and calm and lines were not long.

Student movement leaders who oppose Chavez said they posted monitors at all polling stations to observe how the votes are counted. Both sides have said the outcome will prove crucial to the future of Venezuela.

Former Defense Minister Raul Isaias Baduel said he was exiting a polling booth in Maracay when an individual jumped from a car and came at him. A group of people accompanying him "reacted, and some of them had physical contact with the man," said Baduel, who recently retired and has emerged as a leading critic of Chavez.

Four people were hurt, though he was not, he said. He did not describe their injuries.

"What we are deciding today is of vital importance," he said. "At this moment, what is in play is the future of our country, of our children and of our children's children."

On Saturday, Chavez met with international reporters and threatened that any interference by the United States in the election would lead him to halt sales of oil to the United States.

Chavez insists the majority of the country's 26 million people back him. He has garnered overwhelming support from the country's poorer neighborhoods, which have benefited from his policies -- paid for by skyrocketing oil prices.

Oil accounts for roughly 90 percent of the country's export earnings, according to the CIA World Factbook.

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Despite the animosity that Chavez routinely aims at the United States, the two countries remain closely tied economically -- the United States is Venezuela's biggest oil customer and one of the few countries that can refine its low-quality crude.

Venezuela accounts for up to 15 percent of U.S. crude imports. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Harris Whitbeck contributed to this report.

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