Venezuela just took a democratic step closer to dictatorship. On Sunday, President Hugo Chavez won the right to seek reelection ad infinitum, prevailing in a referendum that eliminated term limits for the presidency and other elected offices. Although the balloting was deemed valid by opposition leaders, who have said they will not contest the results, the victory came about because of Chavez's gross misuse of government funds, government workers and federal facilities for the campaign, and neighborhood enforcers to "persuade" voters to support him. He lost a similar vote 14 months ago, but was clearly determined to become president-in-perpetuity and to have Venezuelans vote until they voted his way.
Chavez says the people have chosen to make his Bolivarian Revolution permanent. Maybe. But this was not democracy in action. It was the latest accretion of power by a president who essentially controls the Congress, the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council, which supervises elections. Campaigning relentlessly, Chavez cast the vote as a referendum not just on term limits but on him personally and on voters' commitment to socialist ideology. It was a tussle between those who love the president for his allegiance to the nation's poor -- Chavez warned that his education, healthcare and business programs for the underprivileged would end with his term in 2013 if he lost -- and those who fear him as a power-seeking autocrat. But these are not contradictory views: Chavez is a dictatorial executive, albeit one who gives ordinary Venezuelans a share in the nation's oil wealth -- even, some economists believe, at the expense of the country's long-term economic health.
It is important, however, that the U.S. not allow Venezuela's domestic politics to hinder our diplomatic efforts in the region. The Bush administration's mix of incompetence and swagger -- its emphasis on useless drug eradication and eschewing of poverty reduction -- played into Chavez's hands, allowing him to paint the U.S. as an elitist menace. It is sobering that in supporting Chavez, many Venezuelans also saw themselves as opposing the United States. So, as much as we deplore what looks like the incremental disintegration of democracy in Venezuela, the U.S. must reengage with Chavez. There are many issues of mutual interest and importance to both countries: trade, immigration, economic development, drug policy and a resolution to the leftist guerrilla conflict across the border in Colombia.
Chavez has joked that he plans to stay in office until 2049. And Sunday's vote shows that in crafting its policy for Latin America, the Obama administration will have to take him seriously.