CARACAS — Venezuelans woke up this morning contemplating the possibility of another decade with Hugo Chavez as their president.
Chavez won a comfortable victory in a referendum that has altered the constitution, scrapping presidential term limits and allowing him to run for re-election indefinitely.
“On this 15th February we have written another memorable page in the calendar,” he said Sunday night while addressing a crowd of red-clad supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace. “It was a clear victory for the people, a clear victory for the revolution.”
The National Electoral Council confirmed a winning margin of almost nine points in favor of Chavez's referendum. The yes vote won by 54.36 percent to 45.63, with a participation of over 70 percent. International observers reported no irregularities in the voting process.
The vote is a personal victory for Chavez, who lost a similar referendum in December 2007 and who appeared to be losing some of his luster of invincibility after regional elections last November in which opposition parties took the most populous states and cities.
But most voters decided to support Chavez.
“The people are going to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on how well he has done in the past ten years,” said Freddy Miranda, a 46-year-old music teacher on Sunday outside a polling station in the 23 de enero slum in the west of Caracas.
“[The revolution] needs to continue so we can perfect it,” said his wife, Maria Moreira, who volunteers as an accountant on a community council — local panels of elected representatives who meet to discuss and address neighborhood problems.
However, not all Venezuelans were happy with the result. “You should fix your own house before you fix someone else’s,” said Jose Mejias, a taxi driver from the same neighborhood, referring to aid Chavez has given to left-wing allies such as Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Mejias complained of potholes in the roads and said two members of his family had been murdered in recent months. Deteriorating services and a rise in crime have been blamed on Chavez's rule.
Such a margin of victory is likely to give Chavez the confidence to push through with some of his more radical policies, said Michael Shifter, vice president of policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank on Latin American politics.
“His confrontational style is going to continue,” he said. “But some of his radical agenda may not resolve the economic problems.”
Chavez has built a reputation as a firebrand leader who wants to create a country guided by “21st century socialism.” He has nationalized many of the country’s industries. His desire to change private property laws and to expropriate large estates have made him deeply unpopular with a section of the nation who fear he is turning Venezuela into another Cuba.
Defeat is a significant set-back for the opposition, which had appeared to be making ground in the last two elections. The opposition has complained that Chavez used considerable state resources and employees to campaign for the yes vote.
The opposition pointed to the open displays of allegiance to the government’s “yes" campaign by certain state institutions — such as the national oil company Petroleos de Venezuela — as evidence that the government illegally used state funds to promote the campaign. According to Reuters, just a few of the oil company employees could be found in their offices in the days before the vote, as most were out campaigning for the government.
The Caracas metro played salsa jingles with lyrics that exhort voters to back the amendment.
And a report by the Media Monitoring Group found that 93 percent of the state TV channel Venezolana de Televison's broadcasts had a bias in favor of the “yes” vote. The report found that the leading opposition channel, Globovison, had a bias of 58 percent in favor of the “no” vote.
“While one can see that the state has been using public funds to promote its cause, you can also see that the opposition hasn't lacked its own outlets,” said Rodolfo Magallanes, a professor in political studies at the Central University of Venezuela. “Undoubtedly, a portion of public funds have been used and unfortunately it has been like that in Venezuela's history.”
The amendment campaign was fought amid mounting tensions and accusations of foul play between those for and against the proposal. Chavez sent in the riot police against university students opposed to the amendment — after he accused them of disrupting civilian life.
Last night, in a symbolic gesture of the scale of their victory, Chavez supporters were setting off fireworks and dancing while a cavalcade of motorcyclists was circling Plaza Altamira, the heart of the opposition movement.
A fractured and demoralized opposition makes Chavez the overwhelming favorite for the next presidential elections in just under four years. But he faces some difficult times ahead.
The collapse of the price of a barrel of oil from an average of just under $100 to a current $40 will severely hamper Venezuela’s economy, which depends on oil for 93 percent of its income. The national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), is in a bad shape, with service companies reporting it owes them more than $8 billion from as long ago as last August.
And despite achievements such as halving poverty and introducing “missions” that provide free primary healthcare, adult education classes, and subsidized food markets to the country’s poor, in his 10 years in power, Chavez has failed to address record levels of murders and kidnappings, rampant inflation and endemic corruption in his government.
The oil price collapse may force Chavez to cut back on social spending and may see Venezuela struggle to import all of the food it needs in the coming year.
A demoralized opposition will have to regroup before National Assembly elections next year, which will possibly be more important for them than this referendum; in the 2005 elections the opposition opted to abstain in protest, giving Chavez almost full control of the house.
But for now, Chavez can bask in a victory that sees him as strong as ever. Last night he declared a “lovers’ week” starting today, to make up for a ban on alcohol on Valentine’s day.
Other GlobalPost dispatches from Venezuela:
Where old cars cost more
Venezuela's ghostly Robin Hoods