President Hugo Chavez scored a major victory Sunday when Venezuelans lifted term limits so he can run for re-election in 2012 and perhaps beyond. The Chavez-backed measure won 54.3 percent of the vote, according to the National Electoral Council.
Televised images showed Chavez supporters celebrating while fireworks boomed in the Caracas sky. ''îChavez, friend, the people are with you,'' the president's adoring supporters, wearing their trademark red t-shirts, chanted outside the presidential palace.
Standing on a balcony, Chavez led the festive crowd in singing Venezuela's national anthem.
''It is a clear victory for the people!'' an exultant president said. ''It is a clear victory for the Revolution!''
The result is expected to give fresh impetus to Chavez's decade-long effort to remake Venezuela into a socialist state. It also will fortify his role as the leader of a resurgent left in Latin America that seeks to check free trade, capitalism and Washington's political and economic reach in the region.
The victory in the national referendum also guarantees continued political tumult in Venezuela and wherever else Chavez injects himself in Latin America. He leads an anti-U.S. bloc that includes Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Honduras.
''Venezuela is in the vanguard of change in Latin America,'' Chavez said.
Chavez said the first congratulatory message came from Fidel Castro, the long-time Cuban leader sidelined by illness.
During a heated campaign, opponents had warned that a Chavez triumph would give him virtually unchecked power in Venezuela.
''He is a narcissist who thinks he is the only one who can solve the country's problems. This is false,'' law professor Henrique Iribarren said after voting Sunday.
Chavez and his allies already control the legislature, the judiciary, a majority of the state governorships and the state oil company, which produces half of the country's wealth and 94 percent of its exports.
Sunday's win gives Chavez political momentum that he lost when Venezuelans defeated his first attempt to scrap term limits -- in December 2007 -- and when opposition candidates were elected governors of the country's three biggest states in November 2008.
Chavez had repeatedly outsmarted his political opponents before the December 2007 election, winning five national elections in a row beginning with his 1998 election as president.
His next move is anyone's guess, although he is expected to devalue Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, as a way of increasing the value of oil exports and increasing the cost of imports. Economists warn that the sudden drop in oil prices will mark 2009 as the end of several years of rapid growth.
Facing the crucial referendum, Chavez has refused to heed calls that he begin to conserve the country's foreign reserves in the face of Venezuela earning perhaps only half as much in oil income in 2009 as in 2008.
Polls by Datanalisis, a Caracas-based survey firm, showed that Chavez made up a 17-point deficit in the campaign's final six weeks. He did it, Datanalisis said, by targeting the 20 percent of the electorate who said Chavez had been a good president but who were reluctant to allow him to remain in power indefinitely.
Chavez pitched himself to these voters by predicting calamity for Venezuela without him as president.
It worked with voters such as Fernando Gomez, a 48-year-old carpenter.