Venezuela Decides Term Limits Today — Chávez Bid to Run Again Leads Slightly

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 15, 2009

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 14 -- Hugo Chávez appears to be everywhere, in his trademark button-down red shirt or army fatigues, singing songs of love to adoring throngs or waving from a campaign truck winding through helter-skelter slums. It is campaign season in Venezuela, yet again.

In the outback, he hugged schoolchildren and reminisced about lessons learned from his beloved grandmother. In the capital, he faced the crowds to excoriate his opponents as traitors teaming up with American agents to destroy Venezuela. With Chávez promoting a referendum Sunday that could extend his presidency far into the 21st century, the message drummed into Venezuelans is simple: Vote for me, or risk calamity.

Chávez has wielded every apparatus of government, including a formidable state press, oil revenue controlled by his office and the collaboration of all but a dozen members of congress. The polls show that he has a slim lead over those who oppose his proposal to scrap term limits so he could run for office an indefinite number of times. This will be his second try in 14 months to lengthen his presidency.

"Venezuelans, you know that I live for you," Chávez, 54, told viewers on one of five state television stations this week. "Do not fail me, and I will not fail you."

In a long interview Thursday on Telesur, a state-owned station that rarely challenges him, Chávez laid out the mortal dangers facing Venezuela and his importance to what he calls a revolution. He said the opposition was "injecting poison" into the veins of the young, spreading lies about his governing and plotting against him. Rocket launchers and explosives had been seized, he said, though he assured viewers that the threat had been neutralized and Venezuelans should remain calm.

Chávez then described how, in talks with Cuba's Fidel Castro, his mentor and friend, he had come to the realization of just how vital he is to the revolution's success.

"Fidel put it very simply: 'I know how this revolution can be reversed,' " Chávez recounted. "I said, 'How?' 'Well, if something happens to you.' We discussed it on various occasions." Chávez said that if he was eliminated, his leftist movement would be irreparably divided.

Repeated over and over, the message has resonated with Venezuelans. Mesmerized by Chávez's charisma, they have looked beyond runaway crime and high inflation and believe that "El Comandante" -- and only he -- will take Venezuela to the promised land.

"God sent this man for the good of the country, and not just Venezuela but for the world," said Fanny Medina, taking a moment from listening to his long speech Thursday night in downtown Caracas. "He is so good. He loves the people so much that we cannot let him leave."

That kind of adulation prompted the president to hastily declare a national holiday on the anniversary of his 10th year in power. Businesses closed under threat of fine. With the presidents of Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other countries in attendance, Chávez announced that Latin America had been "liberated from the imperialist yoke" and that the revolution had delivered a powerful blow to those who had exploited the poor for years.

The truth about the past is less romantic: Venezuela was a stable, if flawed, democracy, corrupt as many petro-states are but without the level of state-sponsored disappearances and assassinations common in Latin American dictatorships. As recently as the late 1970s, Venezuela was considered a model in the region -- attracting immigrants lured by the promise of a better life.

What Chávez did was put Venezuela's poor squarely in the public's consciousness. With oil prices rising throughout much of his presidency, Chávez has cut poverty in half through generous spending on a slew of "missions" that offer discounted food, primary health care, literacy programs and other assistance. Frequently blaming a "rancid oligarchy" for sacking the country's wealth, Chávez gave voice to poor Venezuelans and, critics say, uncorked seething resentments that have made Venezuela a powder keg of polarization.

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