WASHINGTON — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's stunning loss in a constitutional referendum Sunday has dealt a severe and possibly fatal blow to his ambitions to spread his political ideology and succeed Fidel Castro as the leader of Latin America's anti-American left, analysts and U.S. officials said Monday.
Few analysts were willing to bet that Chavez won't recover and try again to strengthen his grip on power in Venezuela. But the rejection of his proposed constitutional changes hurt Chavez because it came on top of a string of international gaffes and missteps that have made him look erratic and even buffoonish.
"The specter of Hugo Chavez dominating the Western Hemisphere was not particularly attractive'' to most Latin Americans, said Riordan Roett, a Latin America expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. ''One finds that the Latin Americans don't like being tarred with the image of Hugo Chavez.''
An 18-country poll by the Santiago, Chile-based Latinobarometro polling organization recently found Chavez as one of the least popular leaders in Latin America. Only Castro was less popular.
At home, Chavez also is facing rising inflation and a scarcity of many basic goods.
All of which is good news for U.S. officials, who want to blunt Chavez's influence, but who are fearful of helping him by acting too openly against him.
''The question we're wrestling now is whether a tipping point has been reached now with the kind of antics we've seen by Chavez of late,'' said a U.S senior intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the situation publicly.
No recent Latin American leader has had such an active international agenda as Chavez.
Not only has he lashed out against the U.S. ''empire'' at every turn, but he also has tried to parlay Venezuela's oil wealth into political influence. He's signed deals with countries to provide oil at favorable prices, invested heavily in Argentina's national debt and has overtly backed political allies in places such as Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador.
Chavez began alienating the international community in the spring of 2006, when he called Peruvian presidential candidate Alan Garcia, a former president, a "thief." Garcia went on to defeat a pro-Chavez candidate.
In September of last year, Chavez horrified Latin American diplomats when he appeared before the United Nations General Assembly and denounced Bush as a "devil" and said that the podium still smelled of sulfur from Bush's recent appearance. Chavez was widely denounced, and the speech probably cost Venezuela key votes in its failed quest to secure a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Still popular among Venezuela's poor, Chavez bounced back and easily won re-election in December.
But his international image took another beating when he revoked the broadcast license of opposition station RCTV, arguing that it had backed a 2002 coup against him. The move sparked protests by students, who also formed the backbone of the campaign for a "no" vote in Sunday's balloting, and unleashed another wave of international condemnations, including by the senates of Chile, Brazil and the United States.
The Brazilian Senate has blocked Venezuela's entry into a South American trade pact known as Mercosur ever since.
Brazil, while outwardly friendly with Chavez, also has opposed some key Chavez initiatives, including a trans-South American natural gas pipeline.
And last month, Saudi Arabia opposed a Chavez initiative to make the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries a more political and anti-U.S. body.
At a summit of Latin American and Spanish leaders in Santiago in October, Chavez drew an angry ''why don't you shut up'' rebuke from King Juan Carlos of Spain, who was angered by Chavez's frequent interruptions of a speech by Spain's prime minister. Chavez froze contacts with Madrid until he received an apology.
After that summit, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a moderate socialist, publicly criticized Chavez for trying to meddle in a Chile-Bolivia territorial dispute and for his hawkish positions at OPEC.
An additional embarrassment for Chavez was a decision by Colombia's conservative President Alvaro Uribe to pull the plug on Chavez's effort to mediate a hostage crisis with a left-wing guerrilla group in Colombia. After a round of mutual recriminations, Chavez decided to freeze relations with the pro-U.S. country.
Chavez, given his oil wealth, remains a force to be reckoned with, said Peter DeShazo, a Latin America analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But his international ambitions are inevitably weakened by his domestic setback.
''Clearly, his own political agenda in Venezuela is now off track,'' DeShazo said, ''and so that will definitely hurt his overall image.''