LISA MULLINS: Venezuelans have weighed in on the future of a man who has been a thorn in the side of the United States. In a referendum yesterday, they voted to remove limits on the re-election or re-elections of Hugo Chavez. In fact, Venezuelans gave a thumbs up to their President's socialist agenda, but critics are warning of an impending dictatorship. Jennifer McCoy directs the America's Program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. She says the vote results bode well for Chavez, but the referendum's impact on democracy is harder to predict.
JENNIFER MCCOY: Obviously, it gives people the right to choose who they want to elect without any term limits. But the fear is that without term limits, the natural advantage of the incumbent can be abused. So Venezuela needs a very strong regulatory framework to make sure that doesn't happen.
MULLINS: Well, it sounds like Venezuelans destroyed some of that framework through this vote. What would be in their interest of saying ? Hugo Chavez, the current President, who has many, many adherents, also has many critics. What would be the reason for saying, ?Sure. You can perhaps run for life??
MCCOY: Well, Chavez posed this referendum as a choice of whether or not to continue with this revolution. And what he told the people was, ?You need to keep me in power in order to continue the revolution.?
MULLINS: Can you just describe for us the revolution as he sees it?
MCCOY: Sure. He calls it a ?socialist revolution,? but it's a 21st Century socialism. So he's trying to distinguish it from the Soviet Union, from the Chinese revolution. But he is trying to put the state in a larger position within the economy, so there's more control from the government. And then he used the resources, and especially from the oil sector ? to distribute those resources more to the poor than they have been in the past.
MULLINS: And to what extent have people benefited from them? I mean, the high oil prices have certainly benefited Chavez. Have they benefited the people of Venezuela?
MCCOY: They have. Poverty has been reduced significantly, and there are more programs out in the very poor neighborhoods ? more medical programs, more subsidized food, more education programs. But there's also a large question as can this be sustainable, particularly with oil prices low now. And this will be the major challenge that Venezuela faces in the next year is how to face oil prices which are much lower than were budgeted for this year, for 2009.
MULLINS: If Hugo Chavez's fortunes are so tied to oil and the price of oil has fallen so greatly, does that mean that since the United States is the majority importer of Venezuelan oil, no matter what Chavez's rhetoric might be against the United States, he really relies on strong relations, at least economically in the US?
MCCOY: Yeah. Even when relations have been extremely tense and nasty between the two countries, oil sales have continued. Over 60 percent of Venezuela's oil is sold to the United States. So I think that Chavez is open to a slightly more positive relationship with the Barack Obama administration. However, his foreign policy is based on the principle of reducing the dominance of US influence in the world, and creating a more multi-polar world, a more balanced world powers. And the whole competition between US and Venezuela has hurt the US's efforts to have a closer relationship with the rest of Latin America. And that's where I think US needs to focus under the Obama administration.
MULLINS: All right. Jennifer McCoy is director of the America's Program at the Carter Center in Georgia. She's also Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. Thank you.
MCCOY: Thank you very much.