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Hugo Chavez bets on politicians' support to end term limits

A defeated referendum is revised to apply to all offices, not just the presidency. Today's vote may be Chavez's last chance to seek the change before the economy gets worse.

February 15, 2009|Chris Kraul

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — With oil prices plummeting and homicide rates soaring, it might seem like an odd time for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to ask voters to scrap limits on how long he can stay in power.

After all, they rejected a similar measure a little more than a year ago, when the petrodollars were pouring in. But Chavez learned from that defeat: He changed the proposal to cover all officials, not just the president. And he's counting on the self-interest of politicians across the country to get out the vote today.

A poll this month by Felix Seijas of the Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis had the "yes" vote leading "no" by 47.5% to 39.5%, but with 13% of probable voters undecided. In recent elections, undecided voters tended to swing against Chavez, according to Seijas' research.

In a rally Thursday that closed his campaign, Chavez, as usual, used incendiary rhetoric before thousands of supporters, threatening to take the fight to the streets if the "squalid ones dare to ignore our victory. . . . I won't let you down, and don't you let me down on Sunday."

Chavez, whose term ends in 2013, has framed the referendum as crucial to his socialist Bolivarian Revolution and programs for the poor. Opposition forces say that Chavez is trying only to perpetuate himself in office and that he has squandered the petrodollar windfall.

"Let's end hate and division," student Juan Pablo Lopez said during another rally Thursday in which thousands of students raised their hands in a symbolic oath to vote "no" as a means of upholding democracy and freedom.

The opposition is taking heart from the decline of Chavez's approval ratings this year, reflecting the fact that living conditions have steadily worsened. The annual inflation rate exceeds 30%, the highest in Latin America, and the number of killings has tripled since 1998. The homicide rate here in the capital, Caracas, is the third-highest among the world's major cities.

Despite Chavez's promise to provide homes for all Venezuelans, the housing deficit has widened, causing rents to skyrocket in cities. Private-sector jobs have dried up along with investment in an economy where business and property owners live in fear of nationalization and squatters.

But the fact that Chavez is leading in most polls is a testament to his base of poor supporters, who benefit from the healthcare, education and other welfare programs he has instituted. It also reflects a poorly organized opposition that has no recognized leader.

"He's convinced the poor that without him, all the benefits they now have will not exist," said Ricardo Sucre, a political consultant. "And the opposition has done nothing to counter that perception."

If the opposition does eke out a victory, it will be because many Venezuelans have grown weary of the nonstop antagonism between Chavez's supporters and the opposition, including the Chavistas' takeover last month of Caracas City Hall, which was won by an opposition mayoral candidate in November.

Chavez has also gone into damage-control mode since the recent desecration of a synagogue here was blamed on the president's strident criticism of Israel after its Gaza Strip offensive. Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro visited a Caracas synagogue Thursday.

Jose Manuel Puente, an economist at the Caracas-based graduate school known by its initials, IESA, said the Chavez-dominated National Assembly may have authorized the referendum with a sense of urgency, knowing that the prospects for keeping their leader in power would only worsen with time.

The plunge in the price of oil, which provides 55% of government revenue, has caused visible stress in public finances, with the government falling behind on payments to various suppliers, including Colombian sugar producers and U.S. oil services firms.

Chavez is trying to curtail Venezuelans' consumption of imported goods to reduce a treacherous budget deficit, and the inflation rate is expected to keep rising this year.

If oil prices, which have declined by nearly $100 a barrel since July, continue at current levels, Chavez will be forced to make severe cuts in his social programs, consultant Sucre said.

"Chavez is still king," he said, "but he is less powerful than five or six years ago, and he is surrounded by problems."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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