Hugo Chavez has waited a long time for this result. After failing in a first referendum in 2007, he has finally got what he wants – the possibility of staying in office indefinitely.
The former army paratrooper’s first bid for power was an abortive coup in 1992. But, six years later, it was through the ballot box that Chavez reached the presidency. Re-elected in 2000, the self-styled revolutionary’s policies dealt Venezuela’s political establishment a hammer blow. An attempt was made to oust him in 2002. It failed. The Chavez era was, in fact, just beginning. He won another six-year term in 2006, and, with today’s victory, it is difficult to predict when it will end. The Chavez system is inspired by the South American independence leader Simon Bolivar, with the redistribution of wealth at its heart. Whole swathes of the economy have been nationalised. Social programmes have been developed for the underprivileged. But the country’s growth and economy are dependent on its oil wealth. And, as oil prices collapse under the global economic crisis, crippling Venezuela’s finances, the leftist leader faces a slowing economy. His opponents condemn rampant corruption. Alongside violence and inflation, it is a regular target of anti-Chavez anger that has so far failed to sway loyalists of this political survivor. For them, Chavez not only offers the prospect of a better life but also a high profile on the international stage, not least for his anti-US rhetoric. At the UN General Assembly in 2006, Venezuela’s President called his then- counterpart, George W. Bush, “the devil.” Ridiculing the US under Barack Obama, who is viewed warmly in Latin America, will not be so easy. An enemy of the US and a friend of its enemies, Chavez makes much of his ties with mentor Fidel Castro. Armed with today’s referendum victory, his opponents already fear Chavez will now impose a Cuban-style regime in Venezuela – with himself as its long-term leader.