Venezuelan Term Limits

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his supporters scored a significant victory on February 15, winning a national referendum to amend Venezuela’s constitution and allow the Venezuelan leader to run for re-election in 2012. With almost 95% of the votes counted, the results indicated that approximately 54.4% of Venezuelans approved the measure while only 45.6% voted in opposition. This was Chávez’s second attempt to end term limits. He tried this 15 months ago and failed, and in regional elections in November the opposition made significant gains, leading many to believe Chávez’s proposal might be defeated again in Sunday’s vote. But with just over 67% of eligible voters turning out to cast their ballots, the referendum prevailed. And while the wording of the referendum presented to voters on electronic voting screens across the country never mentioned the word “re-election,” the vote did end term limits for all elected officials in Venezuela.

The referendum’s approval now has many asking: How did Chávez win a vote as a global recession approaches and amidst a crime wave that has made the Venezuelan capital of Caracas the “murder capital of the world,” according to Foreign Policy magazine?

The voices of both Chávez supporters and opposition leaders in the vote’s wake provide many answers to this question, as well as insights into what comes next in Venezuela and around Latin America.

Popular Social Programs

Those who backed the proposed amendment on Sunday seem to have been motivated by strong support for Chávez’s social programs, including health care and education initiatives.

In the Miami Herald Pedro Siolo, a 41-year-old taxi driver, cited social spending that gave him a free apartment and a $25,000 low-interest loan to buy his taxi, as reasons he voted “yes” on Sunday’s referendum.

Maria Moreira, a middle-aged administrative assistant voting in 23 de Enero, a poor Caracas barrio and Chavista stronghold, told the Times of London that “Chávez has changed Venezuela from the sky right down to the earth.” Moreira voted “yes” because “now there are opportunities for all, from the richest to the most deprived.” She added, “before, there were children who didn’t eat, now they have food, they have schools, they have hospitals. The people love him. We cannot go back.”

And sending dispatches from a voting center in the pro-Chávez district of Catia, a correspondent for the anti-Chávez Caracas Chronicles blog reported similar findings in talking with Chávez sympathizers. According to a self-described passive supporter of Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV):

Before (Chávez) I couldn’t go to a public hospital, and not that hospitals are any better now, but at least they do look after you, and if not, we have Barrio Adentro [Chávez's free healthcare program], where my children are treated with respect and love by the Cubans. Even this week I went to a private hospital where I was paying, and I was mistreated by the doctor. In Barrio Adentro that doesn’t happen.

In reflecting upon their loss, even members of the opposition noted that their inability to shape a coherent social policy played a major role in their defeat Sunday. According to one activist, “this idea that we are against the Misiones [Chavez's community-based social programs] may be hurting us with crucial constituencies. It’s not enough to say ‘it’s not true.’ We need to spell out what our vision is with respect to social policy.”

New Economic Challenges

With Chávez’s popular social programs propelling him to victory, the question of how to sustain them will be key in determining what happens next in Venezuela. Given Chávez’s reliance on Venezuelan oil profits to fund such programs and the recent sharp decline of oil prices, this is a very good question.

In an interview with Al Jazeera Gustavo Coronel, a former board member of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, and a Chavez opponent, argued that while social programs have made Chávez popular among the poor, falling oil prices will weaken his popular support. “He has received more than $700 billion in the last 10 years,” Coronel maintains, “[but] oil prices have plummeted…I doubt this referendum really means a victory for him in the longer term. I think that, in fact, he might be fighting for his life before the end of his term in 2012.”

Other economists believe Chávez will soon have to implement a financial transaction tax, increase the value-added tax (VAT) rate, and cut expensive domestic subsidies on oil prices that have kept gas prices near 12 cents per gallon. Additionally, a devaluation of the Venezuelan currency is likely, and it could cause inflation, already registering a dizzying 31%, to rise further.

These potential economic challenges will force Chávez to rethink some of the commitments, domestic and international, that have defined his presidency over the last decade of strong economic growth. A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that since 2003, the Venezuelan real GDP has grown by 13.5% annually while the poverty rate has been halved from 54% to 26%.

Revolution or Reconciliation?

However, what remains unknown is the strategy through which Chávez will confront these challenges. A polarized society, where some opposition activists say it’s now time to “tell the government we have our own ‘unleashed crazies’ who have their [own] guns too,” makes it difficult for some to believe a cooling of internal conflict is now in store. According to Venezuelan pollster Saul Cabrera, Chávez, for his part will likely “keep his foot on the spending accelerator” while “blaming the economic elite for the country’s problems.”

But with Chávez’s favorite adversary, George W. Bush, gone from the White House, others point to the possibility of a new page being turned in Venezuela.

In a recent press conference, Chávez remarked that “any day is propitious for talking with President Barack Obama.” After the Sunday vote, the State Department praised the “civic spirit” of Venezuelans. And, Chávez himself, in his victory speech from the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on Sunday night, maintained that “this is a victory even for those who voted ‘no.’” According to Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Oriente University in Venezuela, this could mean that “he [Chávez] was in effect saying that in the immediate future, the government will not push further radicalization.”

Only time will tell.

Joshua Frens-String, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a researcher at the Open Society Institute’s Latin America Program and a research associate at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC.