Hugo Chávez this week launched a push for constitutional reform that would allow him to go on seeking indefinite re-election as Venezuela’s president. After nearly a decade in power, he said he needed more than another 10 years to entrench his self-styled socialist revolution.
“We are going to begin the national debate,” he told a televised rally of supporters in the capital Caracas. “I’m ready to be with you until 2021.” Under the Constitution Chávez (54) should step down when his term ends in 2013.
In a referendum last year, voters narrowly rejected a proposal to abolish term limits — but a recovery in the president’s popularity has emboldened him to try again.
Analysts said he was keen to act before tumbling oil prices forced cuts in government spending which have fuelled his image as a messiah for the poor. The move is a gamble, however, because urban voters punished the president’s candidates in local and regional elections last week.
A resurgent opposition rode discontent over crime, inflation and poor public services to win major cities and five states, including the populous and economically important Miranda, Carabobo and Zulia regions. Chávez’s candidates swept 17 states and 80% of town halls.
Both sides claim victory. Chávez sought to turn those gains against the opposition by claiming its governors and mayors had revealed “fascist” tendencies even before they had been sworn in. He alleged they were undermining free clinics and schools. The opposition said that was absurd, since it was elected on the promise of improving public services.
The president has moved to curb the loose coalition of students, old elites and “Chávista” turncoats, which styles itself as a bulwark against the ambitions of a megalomaniac. The government began legal actions against incoming opposition mayors and governors, and transferred some of their powers to central government.
A telecoms watchdog is investigating an opposition TV network, Globovision, which could result in a fine or closure. “This is another demonstration that the government wants to restrict the right to information,” said Julio Borges, an opposition leader.
Victorious opposition candidates said they wanted to work with the president and his allies to tackle urgent social problems. Chávez rejected this offer as a ruse by anti-democratic forces bent on a United States-backed coup similar to the attempt that briefly ousted him in 2002.
He warned of grave consequences. “The revolution is armed, and prepared to counter those who may attack the people. We won’t show them mercy.”
The former soldier said his opponents were “little Yankees” who were plotting with Washington to overthrow him. “It’s part of a plan. They are coming for me. They want to try to topple me.”
Each side accuses the other of sabotage. State media said opposition thugs burned a health clinic and harassed Cuban doctors.
The opposition said outgoing “Chávista” administrations were looting office equipment such as TVs, computers and radios, and burning documents. —