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Chavez isn't finished

Voters' rejection of the Venezuelan leader's reforms doesn't mean the threat from his policies has ended.

December 04, 2007

On election days in Caracas, fireworks and bugles awaken voters in districts known to support Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who controls all branches of government and has cowed or taken over most of the media. With that kind of political machine, the defeat of Chavez's favored constitutional reforms in a referendum on Sunday was a remarkable indictment of his agenda for the nation's future.

Yet while many have ample reason to celebrate the setback for Chavez, whose so-called reforms were aimed at turning a democracy into a socialist dictatorship, it shouldn't be taken as a sign that there is a resurgent opposition movement in a nation that has already ceded most of the reins of power to its president. Nor will Sunday's close vote -- the 69 constitutional amendments were divided into two packages on the ballot, with the first losing by a margin of 1.4% and the second by 2% -- put a serious brake on Chavez's quest for more influence.

Among other things, the amendments would have given Chavez control over the central bank, allowed him to appoint regional vice presidents whose powers would have superseded elected governors and mayors, granted him the ability to censor the media and suspend due process at whim, and ended presidential term limits. Even with the defeat, Chavez probably will be able to pass many of his desired reforms legislatively, given that he controls all 167 parliamentary seats as well as the Supreme Court. The term limits can't be undone without voter approval, though, meaning that Chavez may have to call for another referendum if he wants to keep his seat after his second term expires in 2012.

Media images of huge student marches in Caracas in the run-up to Sunday's vote gave the impression of a powerful opposition movement in action, but in reality, Venezuela's opposition groups are deeply fragmented and leaderless. The biggest factor in the poll loss Sunday probably wasn't the students' protests but Chavez's own nonsensical economic policies, which have caused many of his impoverished supporters to wonder if he really knows what he's doing.

Massive oil revenues and heavy government spending are helping to spark the highest inflation rate in Latin America. Chavez's response has been to impose price controls on basic foodstuffs, giving farmers no incentive to produce and retailers no incentive to sell. The result is severe shortages and hours-long waits to obtain staples such as milk and beans. If that sounds like Soviet Russia or modern Cuba, there's a reason. Chavez's socialist ideals are leading Venezuela to a precipice, and it's the poor who will suffer most if it goes over the edge.

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