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.