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
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
Standing on a balcony, Chavez led the festive crowd in singing Venezuela's
''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
''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
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.
''Venezuela would descend into chaos without Chavez,'' Gomez said Sunday in
explaining why he voted to amend the constitution and allow unlimited releection
for all elected officials.
A one-time army lieutenant colonel who catapulted to prominence in 1992 when he led a failed
coup against Venezuela's democratically elected president, the 54-year-old Chavez
said in the weeks that he needs at least 20 years in power to create Venezuela in
his own image.
By 2012, when he will run for re-election for another six-year term, he will
have already been in office for 14 years.
With Sunday's victory, Chavez joins two leftist allies -- Bolivia's Evo Morales
and Ecuador's Rafael Correa --who in the past year have pushed through
constitutional changes to allow presidential relections.
Chavez was elected president in 1998 in the midst of an economic downturn and
has worked tirelessly to demonize Venezuela's traditional ruling elite while
showering billions of dollars of oil-income on programs for the poor. He succeeded
in halving poverty in Venezuela during his 10 years in office.
Pedro Siolo, a 41-year-old taxi driver, said he voted for Chavez's proposal on
Sunday because the government gave him an apartment for free and lent him $25,000
at low interest rates to buy a taxi.
''Chavez is doing a good job,'' Siolo said.
So-called ''missions,'' often led Cuban personnel, provide allow adults to get
high school and college degrees for free.
Another popular program provides free health care by Cuban doctors for the
poor. Dayana RamÏrez, a 19-year-old studying business at a government institute,
said this program operated on her father for free.
Yet another program sells packaged goods below-cost in poor neighborhoods.
Erica Zapata said she saves 40 percent when she makes her monthly trip to the
''I like the things the president has done,'' Zapata said on Sunday.
Chavez opponents had feared that government supporters would engage in vote
fraud as the polling stations closed. That didn't happen at the Jose de Jesus Arocha
school in the populous working-class district of Petare in Caracas.
Lt. Col. Carlos Osorio, in charge of guarding the vote there, took his
megaphone and at 6 p.m. precisely announced to the street that anyone wishing to
vote should come forward. When no one did, the polling station closed in an
A rowdy group of a dozen people, some in Chavez t-shirts, showed up five
minutes later and angrily demanded to be allowed to vote.
''It's only 6:20,'' complained 22-year-old Yenifer Palomino. ''They always wait
for us, but this time they didn't.''
In this deeply polarized country, the climate of fear could be seen in the
answer of Nestor Moreno, a 58-year-old construction worker, when asked how he
''I voted yes because I didn't want to face reprisals for voting no,'' said
Moreno. ''People lose jobs because they don't agree with the Chavez regimen.
''Chavez is very authoritarian,'' Moreno added. ''He needs to be more
democratic. Things have to be done his way or the highway.''
Miami Herald special correspondent Phil Gunson contributed to this report.