The New York Times
December 01, 2007
Since he took office eight years ago, Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, has grabbed more and more power, exploiting his nation’s oil wealth to buy up popular support. Now there are hopeful signs that his plan to become president for life may be too blatant for the electorate to swallow.
Tomorrow, Venezuelans are scheduled to vote on a package of constitutional reforms proposed by Mr. Chávez that would grant the president control over nearly every major political institution, as well as the option to stand for re-election as many times as he wants. A few months ago, it looked like Mr. Chávez would easily get his way. A survey last week by an independent pollster found that 49 percent of Venezuelans opposed the changes and only 39 percent supported it. We hope those numbers hold.
The breathtaking gall of Mr. Chávez latest lunge for power is alienating even some of his closest allies. A former defense minister, Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, likened the proposed changes to a “coup.” Thousands of university students have taken to the streets to protest, facing down armed Chávista thugs.
Mr. Chávez’s current control — including over the National Assembly, the Supreme Court and the national oil company — is unheard of in modern democracies. The package of amendments would also give the president unchecked power to decree a state of emergency and suspend basic rights indefinitely. It would strip the Central Bank of its autonomy and would allow the president to use the country’s reserves as he saw fit and give the government the power to expropriate property without first getting a court order. Mr. Chávez also put in some crowd pleasers, including a mandated 6-hour workday.
His favorite provisions, of course, would extend the presidential term from six to seven years and remove presidential term limits.
The referendum could still go Mr. Chávez’s way. He is an able politician and benefits from lavish government spending funded by expensive oil. He has milked fights with Spain and Colombia to whip up nationalistic fervor. Earlier polling suggested his cause would be helped by a high abstention rate, with many opponents fearful of being tagged as foes and others planning to boycott the whole thing.
Now there are signs that more Venezuelans have decided to take a stand and vote no. This referendum is too important to miss. Opponents are calling for a massive “no” vote. For the sake of Venezuela’s battered democracy, voters should heed the call.