Chavez wants to be president for life, seeks voter approval

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 2, 2008 

CARACAS — Hugo Chavez wants to remain president of Venezuela for life, and this week he began campaigning for Venezuelans to lift term limits so he can run for re-election indefinitely.

"The opposition will not stop our revolution!" Chavez told hundreds of red-shirted supporters�at a rally in Miranda state�Tuesday night.

Chavez, 54, wants Venezuelans to approve an amendment to the constitution in February that would permit him to seek re-election in 2012 and every six years thereafter.

He's insulted enemies and denounced capitalism as he's turned Venezuela away from the United States and toward Cuba, Bolivia and socialism. He's nationalized companies, taken an unfriendly television station off the air, given food subsidies to the poor and provided free studies for illiterates and high school dropouts in programs known as "missions."

During his 10 years in office, opponents have tried to force Chavez out with a coup attempt, a strike at the state oil company, a recall election and two presidential campaigns. All have failed.

His opponents can point to one major success: Venezuelans defeated Chavez's first attempt a year ago to amend the constitution to end term limits.

This time he vows that he'll emerge triumphant.

"We have to do it," he told cheering supporters Monday. "We have to do it soon. We have to do it well. We have to win."

Chavez then sang a new campaign jingle that began appearing on state television Tuesday: "Uh, ah, Chavez no se va," or "Chavez isn't going anywhere."

Chavez has begun the re-election campaign a week after local elections in which his candidates won 17 of the 22 governor's races and 279 of the 335 mayoral races. Chavez has said the results ratify what he calls "21st Century Socialism."

Opposition leaders have also claimed victory, however. Their candidates won Venezuela's three most populous states, as well as the two biggest cities, Caracas and Maracaibo.

A quick vote on the constitutional amendment means that Chavez and his supporters will remain in campaign mode. Poll numbers show that his popularity tends to drop after elections, when Venezuelans return to day-to-day problems: rampant crime, food shortages, chronic corruption and 35 percent annual inflation, the highest rate in Latin America.

Chavez has managed to remain popular with an uncanny ability to make millions of ordinary Venezuelans feel like he's on their side, said Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas-based pollster. In part, he's won their loyalty by showering the country's oil riches on the poor.

His supporters include Carlos Diaz, a 40-year-old clerk, who supports Chavez because "before there were no social welfare programs and no aid to the poor." He noted that Chavez's government sharply raised Social Security pensions, a move that benefited his parents.

Argenis Arteaga, 28, credits Chavez with allowing him to obtain a high school degree through a "mission" so he can train to work as an electrician.

Chavez's vast government programs are facing cutbacks in 2009, however, because of plummeting oil prices. Oil provides 50 percent of the government's income and 94 percent of its export revenue, and Chavez's government budgeted for an oil price of $60 per barrel in 2009.

The price of Venezuelan crude has now dropped to $39.50 per barrel, and El Universal newspaper reported Tuesday that the government is receiving $115 million a day in oil revenue instead of the projected $174 million.

"Chavez needs to have the constitutional amendment voted on as soon as possible; 2009 will be a difficult year economically," said Herbert Koeneke, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas.

Leon, the pollster, called Chavez "a formidable campaigner," but said he's facing an uphill battle.

His latest poll shows that while Chavez enjoys a 57 percent approval rating, only about half as many Venezuelans support abolishing term limits.

"Chavez is not selling chocolates here," Leon said. "He is selling salty fish."

In the run-up to past elections, Chavez has called his opponents "fascists," threatened to jail them and warned that Venezuela would descend into chaos if he were to lose.

Chavez and his supporters already have begun using similar tactics for the upcoming referendum.

Chavez has called for an investigation of Globovision, a cable television station that highlights his government's shortcomings. A government prosecutor has accused the newly elected opposition mayor of Maracaibo of corruption. The government has taken control of dozens of public schools and hospitals away from newly elected opposition mayors and governors.

On Monday, the National Guard prevented the Caracas City Council from meeting under its new opposition mayor.

Orlando Goncalves, a political consultant, called these "smoke bombs" by Chavez to distract opposition leaders.

"While they're complaining about these things, Chavez is keeping on the offensive," Goncalves said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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