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VENEZUELA: Ten More Years, If He Can Woo a Divided Country

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Feb 16 2009 (IPS) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez won Sunday’s referendum with 54 percent of the vote, which will allow him to stand for reelection indefinitely. But he will have to exercise leadership over a country that is stubbornly split in two.

Chávez votes in the district of Catia, Caracas.   Credit: Courtesy of Comando Electoral del Sí

Chávez votes in the district of Catia, Caracas. Credit: Courtesy of Comando Electoral del Sí

Six million electors voted in favour of the constitutional amendment to remove term limits from the reelection of elected officials, while five million voted ‘No’.

In his speech praising the result, the president left no one in doubt about his vision for the future: “Those who voted ‘Yes’ voted for Chávez and socialism,” he said, and he announced that “this victory is the start of a new cycle of the Bolivarian Revolution, up to 2019.”

“We must review everything we have done and begin to rectify, adjust and strengthen our economic and social affairs. The social ‘missions’ (health, education and nutrition programmes) must be strengthened. Then we will be better placed, after 2010, to continue opening new horizons,” Chávez said.

In the medium term, “We shall continue on the road to socialism, because the only way we can possibly have a country is to have a socialist country,” he said.

Chávez “got both the things he wanted: the opportunity to be a presidential candidate in 2012, and to recover his invincible, or very strong, image, after suffering two electoral reverses,” analyst Luis León, head of the polling firm Datanálisis, told IPS.

When Chávez first proposed a constitutional reform that included allowing reelection without term limits in 2007, the initiative failed by 51 to 49 percent of the ballots. In the regional elections held in November 2008, governing party candidates won the majority of posts, but the opposition made advances in key constituencies.

“We are for ‘El Comandante’ Chávez. We support him because he is the only one who has truly cared about poor people in this country, and as long as he continues in that vein, we want him to stay in office,” a retired teacher, Ana de Cevallos, told IPS Sunday, amid the bustle of the referendum in the central Caracas district of La Candelaria.

In contrast, in the view of Raúl Rondón, a salesperson in the same district, “increasingly, there are fewer people who still want Chávez. They are becoming disenchanted with him, and even if he wins, you can see that many people are sick and tired of fighting. What they want is solutions” to their problems, he said.

José Virtuoso, a Jesuit priest who works in shanty towns in the north of Caracas and belongs to the Ojo Electoral (Electoral Eye) observatory, said that “the results (of the referendum) show that the country is divided into two antagonistic halves, and unfortunately they are not hearing a message of inclusiveness.”

“The president’s speech celebrating his victory did not call for reconciliation, nor for the inclusion of that other half of the country,” he complained.

Looking ahead to the long term, Chávez welcomed the prospect of government continuity, “because brief periods of government were imposed on us as an imperialist strategy, to prevent us from developing a national project that is truly our own.”

In the immediate future, the government “is going to be more populist, more dependent than it has previously been on the popularity of its leader, who is certainly unique. He has shown that he is irreplaceable,” said León.

“Loss of popularity has the same effect on Chávez as kryptonite has on Superman. His position rests on his popularity, his connection with the people, and that could be weakened by the measures that are taken” in the context of the global crisis, León said.

The advantages of holding the referendum before the economic crisis hits Venezuelans with full force, and of using the electoral campaign machinery that was set in motion for last November’s regional elections, prompted the president and branches of government to hold the ballot as soon as possible, after a brief four-week campaign.

So far, Chávez has ruled out any reduction in social spending or any plans to devalue the Venezuelan currency. Raising the price of petrol, which is very cheap in this oil-producing country, has been a taboo subject during his 10 years in power.

But according to the economists’ calculations, oil revenues in 2009 will be only one-third of the income received in 2008, creating an inevitable budget shortfall in a few months’ time and forcing adjustments to be made.

The government has suspended its nationalisation programme over the past few months, but it might renew the policy, targeting private finance, health and food companies, as an attempt to buffer the impact of the crisis on the poor.

As soon as the referendum results came out, the opposition redoubled rallying calls to its supporters to unite, and to keep fighting for the long haul. “This is not a 100-metre flat race, but a marathon, and we will win it,” said student leader David Smolansky.

Tens of thousands of university students who marched in the streets and volunteered as observers at polling stations were the vanguard of the ‘No’ vote campaign, which was far less elaborate than the pro-amendment campaign that had evident access to government resources.

Omar Barboza, the vice president of the main opposition party Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era, UNT), highlighted the fact that out of the 15 elections or referendums that have been held over the last 10 years, this was the first time the opposition garnered more than five million votes, whereas Chávez, reelected in 2006 with nearly 64 percent of the vote, has seen his support dwindle to 54 percent in this referendum.

“We achieved this result in adverse circumstances, because we were not fighting against an amendment proposal, but against the state. We commit ourselves to fighting until democratic values are restored in this country,” said Barboza. “We have a different project to the totalitarian programme of President Chávez,” he added.

The National Electoral Council, after scrutinising 94.2 percent of the returns, reported that there were 6,003,594 votes in favour of the amendment (54.36 percent), and 5,040,082 (45.63 percent) against. A total of 199,041 ballots were annulled, and the abstention rate was 32.95 percent, out of an electoral roll of nearly 16.8 million people.

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