February 15, 2009
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez apparently triumphed in the referendum on constitutional term-limits held on Sunday, but the margin was not that wide: 54% voted to put an end to term limits, and 46% voted to continue them. This result virtually assures that Chavez will remain in office as "president for life" indefinitely. Otherwise, Chavez would have been obliged to step down in 2013, at the conclusion of his second six-year term. Chavez called it "a clear victory for the people. A clear victory for the revolution." Foreign observers said the referendum was fair, but they may not have been aware of intimidation behind the scenes. See BBC and CNN.com. Just before the election Venezuela expelled a legislator in the European parliament from Spain, Luis Herrero, over reports that he called President Hugo Chavez a "dictator." Well, other strong-willed presidents in Latin America have been called dictators, such as Alberto Fujimori of Peru, and even former President Bush (II) was referred to in that way.
If Chavez uses this referendum victory as a mandate to continue with his "socialist revolution," it will guarantee an even stronger backlash against him. The last Venezuelan presidential election was in December , when Chavez won by a sweeping 62%-38% margin. That was a "clear victory." On the other hand, Chavez lost a similar referendum in December 2007. Even though Chavez has been prevailing in most political showdowns over the past year, the opposition has not given up yet. The harder he pushes to control the country, the more former allies will defect from his "Bolivarian Revolution."
* UPDATE: In Saturday's Washington Post, Edward Schumacher-Matos provides additional reason to take solace in Chavez's apparent political success -- namely, the "economic mismanagement and corruption" that will ultimately doom his regime. From Juan Peron in Argentina to Juan Velasco in Peru, Latin American populist despots have taken advantage of export revenue windfalls by splurging on social programs that could not be sustained for long. Given the bleak prospects for crude oil prices in the current global economic recession, it's just a question of how long long it will take before everything begins to unravel in Venezuela. I agree with the author's suggestion that President Obama "should not engage Chávez in public quarreling and certainly should not work privately against him inside Venezuela" as George W. Bush did. Let Chavez fail on his own so that Uncle Sam doesn't get the blame.