February 15 marked a major step in the consolidation of Venezuela’s so-called “twenty-first-century socialism.” President Chávez’s decisive 54-45 victory in a national referendum to abolish term limits opens the door to his possible life tenure. The win marks the twelfth electoral triumph for the controversial leader since he was first elected in 1998. Chávez not only remains widely popular after a decade in office but he regularly translates his support into electoral success in contests accepted as free and fair both by Venezuelans and teams of international observers. Now media outlets around the world are sounding the alarm about the prospect of Chávez as president for life.
Regardless of what one thinks of the outcome of the week’s referendum, there is cause for hope. Hard-core Chávistas, as the president’s base is called, have carried their leader to what may be his most significant victory yet. Moderates like me who are critically supportive of the Chávez administration wish he would have spent less time, resources and political capital campaigning to extend his mandate. Some of that energy should have been directed toward training new leadership and addressing Venezuela’s pressing problems, including a deteriorating relationship with the United States, the country’s largest trade partner, and widespread poverty.This is the second time in fifteen months Chávez has sought to extend his power; meanwhile, inflation has soared above 30 percent and the United States has no official diplomatic representation in Caracas. Yet we can still celebrate Venezuela’s commitment to the democratic process and popular participation in elections and referendums on the major decisions the country has made in the past decade.
Those who are horrified by the thought of President Chávez for life, or even for another day, should at least take some solace in the fact that opponents have been making steady, if uneven, gains in electoral contests ever since they boycotted the 2005 elections and refused to recognize the outcomes they did not like in previous national ballots. As Omar Barboza, leader of the opposition party Un Nuevo Tiempo, pointed out, it is the first time the opposition “passed the barrier of five million votes.” The opposition will have another chance to vote him out of office in 2012, and at least every six years after that. With oil prices falling, Chávez’s popularity may soon follow. There are at least three reasons why we should congratulate Chávez on his victory.
First, it would be hypocritical to suggest there is something fundamentally wrong or undemocratic about not having term limits. Throughout most of US history there were no presidential term limits: not until the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951. Many of our key democratic allies, including England, have no term limits, deeming it more democratic to allow the people to decide when to oust a leader. More recently, when Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe successfully changed his country’s Constitution in 2005 to extend term limits and then won re-election, the US State Department was supportive. Likewise, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently extended his term limits. Neither of them did so with a referendum from voters as Chávez did.
Second, no term limits does not mean monarchy; it does not even mean Chávez for life, unless he keeps winning elections. He will still have to be re-elected every six years, and under Articles 72 and 233 of Venezuela’s Constitution the opposition can revoke his mandate in the middle of the term if it mobilizes enough votes. There is no indication that Chávez will steal an election or refuse to recognize an unfavorable outcome: in 2007, when his first attempt to do away with term limits as part of a comprehensive constitutional reform was narrowly defeated, he graciously accepted the results.
Finally, Chávez’s sustained popularity is based on concrete changes he has delivered to Venezuela’s poor majority. According to a report published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank, since 2003 the poverty rate has been cut by more than half, from 54 percent of households to 26 percent at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen by even more, down 72 percent. These poverty rates measure only cash income and do not take into account increased access to healthcare or education–areas where the government has substantially expanded free service provision. In the past five years, fueled by an oil boom, Venezuela’s real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has nearly doubled, growing by 94.7 percent in 5.25 years, or 13.5 percent annually, making it one of the strongest economies in the hemisphere. Over the entire decade of Chávez’s presidency, infant mortality fell by more than one-third and the number of primary-care physicians in the public sector increased twelvefold. Few countries can boast such remarkable gains in just a decade.
To be sure, the Chávez administration may be fairly criticized on a range of fronts–from widespread corruption to undiplomatic rhetoric, from high crime rates to food shortages. And the campaign rhetoric and tactics Chávez employed were disappointingly, if predictably, inflammatory. However, even those who cannot celebrate the outcome of the referendum should at least be satisfied with the realization of a democratic process.
Now that Chávez can stop worrying about whether he will be able to run for re-election again, he can hopefully focus on making sure his people want to re-elect him. Venezuela’s social problems and political tension require urgent, expert attention; and with falling oil prices, Chávez has an immense challenge ahead of him. But on February 15, looking back on his ten years in office, 54 percent of Venezuelans felt that Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution were change they can believe in.