Not so fast, Venezuelans warn Chavez

A Times Editorial
Published December 8, 2007

Venezuelans had plenty of self-serving reasons last Sunday to embrace President Hugo Chavez's constitutional changes, from the prospect of a shorter work week to easier credit. The voters' rejection of his appeal in a country where Chavez dominates political life demonstrates how apprehensive Venezuelans are about entrusting more control to their bombastic, left-wing president. Chavez still holds the reins of power, but the loss is a blow to his agenda and his appeal, and it is a defining moment for Venezuelan democracy.

Chavez framed the constitutional changes as necessary for continuing his transformation of the nation into a modern socialist state. But voters focused instead on proposals among the 69 amendments that would have enabled Chavez to consolidate his power. The changes would have ended the autonomy of the central bank, enabled the president to seek re-election indefinitely and given federal authorities a stronger hand in shaping local politics. Voters killed the plan 51 percent to 49 percent. At first, Chavez greeted the loss with a measured tone and appeal for calm. By Wednesday, he had returned to bombastic form, dismissing the results with a profanity and a vow to pursue the changes anyway.

The question now is whether disaffected Chavez supporters can get through to the president and encourage him to open the political process. If Chavez backs down, he risks losing the cult of personality behind his populist appeal. If he pushes ahead, he risks further dividing his party and giving rise to a broad-based opposition. Chavez is confrontational, and some supporters want him to change the constitution through decree powers granted him by the Chavez-controlled legislature. That could further his agenda to use the country's oil wealth to fight poverty. But it also would amplify the fear of autocratic rule that killed Sunday's referendum.

It was only a matter of time before Chavez overreached. His antics - calling President Bush "the devil," needling the king of Spain - have tired even his supporters. "They want a statesman, not a clown," one American pollster said. A Venezuelan who voted against the referendum said: "I want him to stay in office, but on a leash." It is unclear at the moment which way he will go. But Venezuelans have shown they want a change in course before Chavez leaves office in 2013.