Pity the biographers of Hugo Chavez, who will have to figure out the answer to the baffling question of whether the Venezuelan president is a genius or a fool.
Chavez's rise to power has demonstrated his brilliant instinct for rallying the country's disaffected poor, an instinct reflected in the constitutional referendum taking place Sunday. Venezuelans will be asked to approve 69 amendments that would change the government from a democracy into something that looks a lot more like a Cuban-style dictatorship, yet Chavez has numbed the sting with populist gifts such as a shorter workweek and healthcare services for workers in the informal economy. At the same time, the image of Chavez as a political mastermind has taken a beating over the last month, as he got into pointless fights with the leaders of Spain and Colombia that left him looking like a buffoon incapable of keeping his mouth shut. The result is that although earlier polls showed the amendments would easily pass, now the vote is too close to call.
If Chavez's power grab succeeds, it will be largely because of a stunningly self-defeating philosophy by the opposition. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans oppose the constitutional changes, but opponents are far less likely to vote than the armies of enthusiastic Chavistas. For some, this reflects a fear of retaliation, but for many others it's a mindless form of protest -- the idea being that by voting, opponents add legitimacy to a referendum that Chavez has already fixed. The obvious futility of this notion was demonstrated in the 2005 parliamentary elections, which the opposition protested by boycotting. Chavez now controls all 167 seats in the National Assembly, in addition to the judiciary and most of the media. Here's hoping that Venezuelans who believe in personal liberty and rational economic policies have learned from their mistakes.
A win for Chavez would be a loss for Latin America, the United States and, most of all, Venezuela. Chavez has undeniably improved the lot of Venezuela's poor, but he has done it by strangling their golden goose -- spending nearly all of the country's vast oil profits on social programs and petro-diplomacy rather than reinvesting them for future growth. His anti-U.S. rhetoric and meddling in the politics of neighboring countries threaten a return to the hostile relations and counterproductive policies of the Cold War era. The constitutional changes would only make it easier for him to savage the country's economy by giving him control of its central bank, while also doing away with presidential term limits and allowing him to censor the media and suspend due process when the whim strikes him.
There is nothing the U.S. can or should do to prevent all this; the fate of Venezuela is in the hands of Venezuelans. But they'll pay a steep price if they make the wrong choice Sunday.