December 08, 2008
Venezuelan Leader Could Rule Until 2019
BOGOTA, Colombia, Dec. 7 -- All this month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has explained in one speech after another how he would like nothing more than to leave office when his term ends in 2013. But the Venezuelan people are urging him to remain in the presidency, Chávez has said, and he will not disappoint.
"I am not the one planting this. It is the people who are planting this," Chávez said Wednesday before red-shirted supporters in the coastal city of Cumana. "I would prefer to leave in four years, for many reasons -- human and personal reasons. But in the end, at this stage in my life, I am conscious that I do not belong to myself."
Chávez says he belongs to the people of his oil-rich country. The National Assembly, a body with only a handful of government foes, is expected to support a measure next week that would trigger a referendum asking Venezuelans to approve a constitutional amendment scrapping term limits. If Chávez wins that vote, to be held as early as February, the former army paratrooper could rule until at least 2019 -- 20 years after he first took office with a promise to dismantle Venezuela's old social and political order.
"Ten more years of the revolution will come," Chávez said Saturday to throngs outside the Miraflores presidential palace. "I will be here until God wills it."
The populist firebrand's renewed effort to remain in office a year after voters rejected a referendum that would have eliminated term limits underscores the challenge the administration of President-elect Barack Obama faces in Venezuela.
During a tumultuous decade in power, Chávez has survived a coup and an oil workers' strike. He took the initiative against opponents, debilitated foes and, in the process, took control of all government institutions. He has used Venezuela's formidable oil coffers to build an anti-Washington alliance with like-minded governments in Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
Chávez has also forged ties with Iran and assisted Marxist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia, American and Colombian officials say, while escalating verbal attacks on Venezuelan opposition figures and the country's private news media.
To reach his latest objective, Chávez could have taken the painstaking route of collecting the 2.5 million signatures required to activate a referendum. But the government has decided on a faster path, one opposition groups call undemocratic: a vote in the National Assembly, which only requires the approval of 30 percent of lawmakers.
Speed is crucial as the slide in oil prices makes life harder for Venezuelans, even for the working classes that form the base of Chávez's support. Chávez last week explained he wanted the matter settled by February, or March at the latest. "I do not want to spend all of 2009 in this debate," Chávez said. "We need to do this fast."
The president of the National Assembly, Cilia Flores, told state television last week that the National Electoral Council would have 30 days to organize a vote once lawmakers approve a referendum. The president is apparently not taking any chances.
He has named trusted associates to shepherd the proposal though the National Assembly, and then to win popular support on the streets. They are Jorge Rodríguez, a former vice president and the new mayor of Libertador district in the capital, Caracas, and Aristóbulo Istúriz, a former education minister.
The president's latest crusade comes at a tense time in the polarized country of 26 million.
Last month, opposition politicians made important advances in elections for governors and mayors. Though Chávez's United Socialist Party continues to rule most states and towns, the opposition won control of Caracas' city hall and economically vital states such as Carabobo and Tachira.
Despite conciliatory words from two leading opposition politicians who won offices in metropolitan Caracas, Chávez has called them "fascists" intent on dismantling popular social programs. The government has also warned that it could pull the broadcast license of Globovision, an opposition television station, for televising a speech by an anti-government candidate who declared victory before official results were released. In the National Assembly, Chávez allies have been holding hearings to outline corruption charges against a leading opposition figure, Manuel Rosales.
Now, opposition groups are gearing up for another bruising battle: fighting Chávez's plan to lift term limits. The president's foes argue that staging a referendum on the matter is unconstitutional because voters last December rejected a similar proposal. Their concern was echoed by Vicente Diaz, a member of the government electoral board, who last week raised questions about the legality of a new referendum.
In Caracas, the opposition has put up placards that read: "What is it about no that you do not understand?" It is unlikely, though, that opponents will be able to stop a referendum on legal grounds, since the Supreme Court, which is stacked with Chávez supporters, does not rule against government initiatives.
In a news conference Saturday, leading opposition figures acknowledged as much. "If the institutions do not function," a statement they issued said, "and they permit this reelection proposal, then we will confront it and defeat it with the votes of the majority of Venezuelans."
Chávez is characterizing the extension of his rule beyond 2013 as necessary to continue a socialist transformation of the country and blunt what he calls Washington's diabolical designs on Venezuela. In speech after speech, he has predicted an easy victory in the upcoming referendum.
"They are afraid, my heart tells me that," Chávez said of his foes last Wednesday. "This amendment will happen. And we will win by a huge majority in February."
Political analysts say Chávez needs to carry out a referendum quickly, before the continuing drop in oil prices batters an economy heavily dependent on crude exports to the United States. Venezuelan oil, tar-like and requiring special refining, is selling for less than $35 a barrel.
In addition to economic hardships that include the highest inflation rate in Latin America, Venezuela has a homicide rate that tops that of neighboring Colombia, which has been plagued by a long internal conflict. The opposition exploited those problems in last month's election, winning in poor slums that had been bastions of support for Chávez.
Yon Goicoechea, who led a student movement against last year's referendum, said the opposition needs to begin marshaling voters to turn back Chávez's plan.
"We think it is profoundly unjust to have us vote over something we already decided," he said in comments published in the Caracas newspaper El Universal. "But because we did make a decision, and because we are confident in the people of Venezuela, we know we are going to win again."