- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

CARACAS, Venezuela | President Hugo Chavez warns that a defeat in a referendum Sunday that would eliminate term limits could derail his decade-long effort to bridge the gap between rich and poor. Opponents say a Chavez win would send Venezuela on a dangerous path toward dictatorship.

“El Comandante” says he needs more time to complete Venezuela’s transition to socialism, and is asking supporters to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for re-election for decades to come.

“Hugo Chavez is a humble soldier. I live for you,” he told tens of thousands of supporters at a campaign rally Thursday. “I won’t let you down. Don’t let me down on Sunday.”

Opponents say lifting term limits would remove the last remaining check on the president’s power. The Supreme Court and National Elections Council - both appointed by the Chavista-dominated National Assembly - have been packed with Chavez allies, they say, giving the socialist leader nearly unlimited power.

Mr. Chavez denies he wants to be president for life.

“It’s not about that lie repeated and repeated by opposition spokesmen, that if the amendment is approved, then it will be Chavez the dictator, Chavez the king,” he told supporters.

But the former paratroop commander, first elected in 1998, concedes that he isn’t ready to give up power just yet. He has suggested that he wants to govern Latin America’s largest oil exporter for another decade.

Without a constitutional amendment, Mr. Chavez will have to leave office in 2013. He notes that a successor has yet to emerge from within the ranks of his ruling party, and that a loss Sunday could lead to divisions within the coalition of leftist parties backing him.

Mr. Chavez was defeated in a referendum in December 2007 that would have removed presidential term limits, and says nothing is stopping him from trying again if he loses this time. But analysts say time is not on his side.

The plummeting price of oil, which accounts for 94 percent of Venezuela’s exports and nearly half its federal budget, could force Mr. Chavez to scale back public spending, which would hurt his popularity, said Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan planning minister who teaches economics at Harvard University.

Indeed, Mr. Chavez’s popularity is in large part because of the billions of dollars he has poured into social programs. He has not rolled back spending even as oil prices have dropped from a record $147 a barrel in July to $38 a barrel today.

With a worldwide economic crisis under way, analysts doubt those prices will rebound anytime soon.

“Venezuela is a train running at 150 miles per hour. There’s a wall on the tracks a few miles away and the driver still has his foot on the accelerator,” Mr. Hausmann said. “Time is not on his side. That’s why he was in such a hurry to have this vote.”

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