Héctor Tobar and Chris Kraul
Los Angeles Times
August 17, 2007
The president of Venezuela was on the front pages of most newspapers here Thursday, with headlines expressing astonishment at what he had done the night before.
"Hugo Chavez Forever," declared Excelsior, referring to his proposal Wednesday to rewrite the Venezuelan Constitution and liberate himself from term limits.
But from the offices of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, there was only silence. He would not comment on the "matters of Venezuela's national sovereignty," a spokeswoman said.
Across Latin America, commentators expressed concern that the region's most colorful and controversial leader was undermining democracy here. But democratic leaders from Mexico City to Buenos Aires chose not to comment.
Chavez has become Latin America's most polarizing figure. His supporters at home and abroad hail him as a bold leader who has challenged Venezuela's elite and countered the U.S.
Others see his proposals, outlined in a five-hour speech Wednesday that promised to move the country toward "a 21st century socialism," as confirmation that he is a dangerous demagogue.
"He's gone beyond even Darth Vader," reader Enrique Martinez wrote in a comment on the website blog of Mexico City's Reforma newspaper. "Only in movies do you see these things. He's truly crazy."
In El Salvador, Ernesto Rivas Gallont, a former ambassador to the United States, said, "What Hugo Chavez is doing is robbing the Venezuelan people of the sacred right of democracy. He has millions of dollars in oil money . . . and he's used that to purchase the will of the people."
Among the 33 constitutional changes Chavez proposed are increasing the six-year presidential term by one year and eliminating the two-term limit. He also wants to institute a six-hour workday, eliminate the autonomy of the central bank, and broaden his power to expropriate property and militarize some regions of Venezuela.
Chavez, who was granted power to rule by decree by the National Assembly in January, defended his proposal as "a transfer of power to the people." The constitutional revisions must be approved by the National Assembly before being put to voters in a referendum.
The proposals run counter to the trend of open markets and non-military government in other Latin American nations, including Chile, Colombia and Mexico. But Thursday, even those governments chose not to challenge the Venezuelan leader.
"Mexico has made it clear that having just stepped out of the ring with Chavez, they won't get back in," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a Mexico City political analyst. He was referring to a series of verbal spats in 2006 in which Chavez criticized Mexico's close ties with the U.S.
Mexico has little to gain from further tussles with Chavez, who has built strong alliances with Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other countries by using Venezuela's huge petroleum windfall to subsidize fuel sales and to fund development programs.
Chavez's PetroCaribe initiative provides oil to Jamaica, Dominica and other Caribbean countries on preferential terms.
"These countries are saving $450 million a year thanks to PetroCaribe," said Oscar Vargas, a sociologist and political analyst in Nicaragua. "Do you think any of their leaders are going to speak out against Venezuela's decisions?"
In Nicaragua, Chavez was the guest of honor at President Daniel Ortega's inauguration in January. Chavez has promised to supply cheap fuel oil to Nicaragua and to build new electricity plants there.
A neighborhood in the capital, Managua, is named for Chavez because Venezuela paid to install electrical service there.
"Chavez has used his oil profits to improve the life of the population," Vargas said. "That's the most important reason why he's won so many elections and hasn't fallen from power."
Alexei Paez, an international relations expert in Quito, Ecuador, said Chavez's bid to stay in office was part of a recent trend.
Presidents Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Carlos Menem of Argentina and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia pushed through constitutional changes that enabled them to hold on to power longer than law prescribed.
Roman Ortiz, a scholar with a Bogota think tank, said there have been times when a democracy doesn't want to see a leader leave the stage. He cited the four elections won by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, before the two-term limit was set.
"People sometimes see a leader as essential to getting through an emergency or fixing a structural problem," Ortiz said. "I see no reason why that should not be allowed to happen in Latin America."
Tobar reported from Mexico City and Kraul from Caracas, Venezuela. Maria Antonieta Uribe of The Times' Mexico City Bureau, Andres D'Alessandro of the Buenos Aires Bureau, and special correspondent Alex Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.