Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez suffered an unprecedented defeat
after voters on Sunday rejected a constitutional package of 69
reforms that included scrapping presidential term limits and
declaring Venezuela a socialist state.
It is the first major electoral setback suffered by Mr. Chavez, a
former military officer, since he swept into office nine years ago
and the clearest sign yet that support for his "21st-century
socialism" is on the wane.
Buoyed by record-high oil prices, he has created allies at home
and abroad as he has doled out millions in social-service programs
and discounted oil, at the same time becoming increasingly hostile
toward the US, which he calls the "empire."
But analysts say that many of the reforms on the ballot Sunday
were too radical for some voters, and that an amendment to abolish
term limits was seen as a power grab. Although he remains widely
popular and opponents only won by two points, Venezuelans rejected a
new Constitution that would have forged the way for him to become
the most powerful leader in Latin America. The defeat may limit his
reform plans and serve as a warning to other regional leaders
following in his footsteps.
"Up until now this appeared to be an indestructible government,
but now people realize it is possible to find its weaknesses," says
Elsa Cardozo, a foreign policy expert at the Central University of
Venezuela. "This can also be a lesson for the opposition in Bolivia
and Ecuador. Here [the opposition] found the government's Achilles
heel and attacked it democratically at the polls."
Chavez conceded victory after official results were announced
early Monday morning: The "Nos" took 51 percent of the vote, while
those in support of the reforms got 49 percent, according to the
national electoral commission.
"I congratulate my adversaries for this victory," Chavez said on
state television early Monday morning. "For now, we could not do
The lead-up to the campaign was marked by tense protests as
students flooded the streets to demonstrate against constitutional
changes they called undemocratic. Perhaps Chavez's biggest blow came
from his former allies, such as former Defense Minister Raul Baduel,
who likened the proposals to a "coup."
Chavez softens combative tone
Leading up to the vote, Chavez had become increasingly combative.
After Colombian President Alvaro Uribe cut off his role as a
hostage negotiator with leftist guerrillas, Chavez recalled
Venezuela's ambassador. Chavez then threatened to nationalize
Spanish banks operating in Venezuela after the King of Spain told
him to "shut up" during an international meeting last month.
He also threatened to cut off oil to the US if Washington
interfered in the referendum.
Before Sunday's referendum, he said that those planning to vote
against him were "traitors" and that a defeat could put a halt to
The 69 proposed amendments would have allowed him to personally
select state and regional officials.
Reforms would have dissolved the autonomy of the Central Bank,
given the president direct access to the international reserves, and
- among the most controversial moves - abolished term limits for
heads of state. …