- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009

UPDATED:

President Hugo Chavez won a referendum Sunday that will allow him to stay in office as long as he keeps winning elections, a change he said was necessary to complete Venezuela’s transformation to a socialist state.

Supporters took to the streets with flags and fireworks. Many gathered at the presidential palace late last night to hear Mr. Chavez sing the national anthem from the balcony.

He followed the serenade by proclaiming: “Today we opened wide the gates of the future. Venezuela will not return to its past of indignity.”

With 94 percent of the vote counted, results showed that 54 percent had voted in favor of the constitutional amendment, National Electoral Council chief Tibisay Lucena announced. Forty-six percent had voted against the measure, which would eliminate term limits on all public officials.

The vote reversed a failed attempt by the leftist leader just 14 months earlier to persuade Venezuelans to amend the constitution by removing term limits for all public offices.

It was the second time in his presidential tenure that the Venezuelan leader has successfully amended the country’s law governing presidential term limits. Mr. Chavez, who first assumed office in 1999, won support for a new constitution the same year that allowed the president to serve two six-year terms.

While his supporters rejoiced at the prospect of having Mr. Chavez at Venezuela’s helm for another decade or more, an aspiration the president has declared on numerous occasions, opponents of the president expressed fear that Venezuela was veering toward hard-line communism.

“If he wins he’ll be unleashed and he’ll make us like Cuba, because that’s what he really wants,” said Adriana Hernandez, a 19-year-old engineering student, the Associated Press reported. “He’ll create laws by decree, and go after private property.”

Opposition groups complained that the president’s supporters violated electoral laws Sunday by using trucks with loudspeakers to campaign in Caracas, imploring supporters to head to the polls.

The president warned opponents Sunday to respect the outcome of the referendum and not turn to violence. “Any attempt to take us down the path of violence, by failing to recognize the results of the people’s will, will be neutralized,” said.

The win by Mr. Chavez came as a surprise to some observers considering the ill effects of the global recession on the country’s largely petroleum-dependent economy.

The steep drop in the price of oil - almost 60 percent less than it was at its all-time high in July - has forced significant cost-cutting measures for the Venezuelan government and the sweeping social services, including educational and medical programs, that Mr. Chavez favors.

Venezuela’s budget for 2009 was created with a $60-per-barrel price tag in mind. But with prices hovering in the $40 range, the Chavez administration has acknowledged that its social efforts, both at home and abroad, would suffer.

Venezuela also has the highest inflation rate in Latin America, estimated at more than 30 percent.

“There was a real expectation [opponents of Mr. Chavez] could pick him off this time because of the economy,” said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, noting that the overwhelming percentage of Venezuela’s population remains impoverished.

“Unfortunately, in a place like Venezuela, Chavez is almost uniquely crafted to carry on his own revolution,” Mr. Birns said.

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