Chavez has shot at lifelong presidency

03 December 2007
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Chron.com
Quotes Edgardo Lander
CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Hugo Chavez's hero, 19th century independence leader Simon Bolivar, once warned that prolonged rule by a single person can lead to tyranny. But if voters approve a constitutional referendum today, Chavez could hang onto Venezuela's presidency for many years to come. That's because one of the 69 amendments on the ballot would scrap presidential term limits. "You decide," the 53-year-old president told a huge crowd gathered Friday in downtown Caracas to support the constitutional changes. "If you want me, and God gives me life and health, I'll lead the government until 2050." Concern that Chavez, who was first elected in 1998, would govern well into the 21st century is one of the main factors motivating his opponents. They have waged a fierce campaign to defeat the referendum, and polls indicate that the outcome is too close to call. Either way, Chavez will govern until at least 2013 when his term expires. But the close contest has some Venezuelan leftists pondering the Bolivarian revolution's future. Many believe that Chavez is the only leader with the charisma, drive and determination to transform Venezuela into a socialist state. Others support his social welfare programs but distrust his lust for power. These critics — including Chavez's former defense minister, Raul Baduel, and members of the PODEMOS party that was part of the governing coalition — believe that a cult of personality has formed around Chavez. Within the inner circle, they say, few people dare to challenge him, even when he makes glaring mistakes. "There is very little self-criticism or debate," said Edgardo Lander, a left-leaning academic at the Central University of Venezuela. "That's been an enormous weakness." Since Chavez burst onto the political scene by commanding a failed 1992 military coup, he has been the undisputed leader of the Venezuelan left. During nearly nine years in office, he and his allies have reshaped the oil-rich nation by writing a new constitution, taking control of key energy installations and funneling billions of petrodollars into social programs. "Chavez is monomaniacal on the point that he wants to be the person to hammer out the new Venezuela," said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "He feels that the clock is ticking and that he must institutionalize the revolution." A major part of this plan is today's referendum, which would expand Chavez's control over the economy and the army, would allow his appointees to run newly drawn-up federal territories. It would also enshrine measures to give average people more say in local government, lower the voting age to 16, drop the workday from eight hours to six and mandate social security payments for part-time and independent workers. But the proposal to do away with presidential term limits has sparked the loudest debate. Revolution personified Rafael Uzcategui of the pro-Chavez Fatherland for All party points out that if people grow tired of Chavez they can simply vote him out of office. "This is nothing to be afraid of," he said. But opposition candidates have lost three straight elections to Chavez by large margins, and some politicians were hoping that he would simply go away in 2013 when his term expires. Instead, the referendum could open the door to an even longer Chavez presidency, especially if oil prices remain high and government coffers stay full. Birns calls Chavez the latest in a long line of Latin American caudillos, or strongmen. Frustrated with corrupt, inept governments, people in the region have often turned to charismatic, strong-willed leaders, elected or otherwise, who promise salvation. In Venezuela, Chavez has spent heavily on schools, medical clinics and subsidized supermarkets, improving living conditions for the poor. All along, his government's propaganda machine has constructed a halo of goodwill around the former lieutenant colonel, whose mentor is Fidel Castro. State television broadcasts all of Chavez's speeches. Because he seems to have a hand in nearly every government program, many Venezuelans believe Chavez is the revolution. Mixed opinions Chavez constantly promotes his image as father and guardian of the country. "I pay back your love with my love," he told the crowd Friday. "My life belongs to you." His speeches can leave supporters spellbound. Asked what would happen if the referendum is defeated and Chavez was forced to step down in five years, Luis Ortega, a mechanic who lives in a working-class Caracas barrio, shook his head and said: "Right now, there is no one else." Yet many people who voted for Chavez in the past are breaking ranks on the referendum. Ortega's neighbor, Balbina Rojas, said Chavez has done some good things, "but the bad part is that he wants to be president-for-life." If the "no" vote wins, some experts say, it wouldn't necessarily spell the revolution's end. Chavez would have five years to groom a successor. Even if the opposition wins the next election, the incoming president would be under intense pressure to maintain the anti-poverty programs Chavez launched, said Mark Schneider of the Washington-based International Crisis Group. A "no" vote could also force a reckoning within government ranks at a time when Chavez has come under criticism for high inflation, state corruption and food shortages. "Revolutionaries tend to think the world is simply waiting for tomorrow's speech, so filling potholes be damned," Birns said. "They don't realize that the public is very fickle and will turn on them." 2007 © Chron.com