Venezuela faces bitter term-limit showdown
I have to admit one thing - With Bush gone Hugo Chavez has lost a major enemy which he can attack as a means of garnering support.
Caracas, Venezuela —- In Venezuela, you’re either for Hugo Chavez or against him. There are Chavista newspapers and television stations, and opposition newspapers and television stations. There are pro-Chavez neighborhoods and anti-Chavez neighborhoods. Even the landscape is partisan: “Plaza Altamira is Chavista now” proclaimed a newspaper headline Wednesday, above an article saying an anti-Chavez campaign booth had disappeared from the square.
The nation votes today on a referendum that would remove constitutional term limits and enable Chavez to continue to run.
Chavez himself marveled in an interview Tuesday that some people may not have decided how to vote yet. He said all Venezuelans must determine the country’s future when they vote today, including “those who have doubts or are apolitical —- that is, if there is still anyone who is indifferent to politics in Venezuela today.”
Indeed, the undecided are few and far between, and the two sides are growing ever more distant.
“I feel a deep sadness for this divided, fractured country, split into two poles, radicalized and polarized,” said opposition student leader David Smolansky, 23. “This country had always been a paradise of coexistence of all types —- racial, political, of ethnicities and of social classes.”
Chavez blames the opposition for the bitter divide.
“We are the peace ticket,” he said Tuesday. “Them? That sick pack of hatred? Ah, well. You want the country to enter a sea of violence and terror? … The referendum is to put the brakes on this madness, to prevent this madness from taking the reins of our country again.”
Chavez remains broadly popular, particularly among the poor, who have benefited from his oil-funded social programs and who were largely left out of earlier oil booms under governments further to the right.
But his attempt to amend the constitution in December 2007 met with a surprise defeat. That effort included a variety of crowd-pleasing changes like a six-hour workday along with a clause to enable the president to run for re-election indefinitely, but many worried that his power already had too few checks and balances.
This time, Chavez has narrowed the referendum to affect term limits only, and broadened it to apply to all elected officials. He also has campaigned incessantly, and the normally tireless Chavez has appeared exhausted. In recent days, his normally marathon speeches have been downright short.
The result: “Yes” has pulled even with —- and perhaps slightly ahead of —- “no” in recent polls.
The opposition says Chavez support has surged through illegal use of government resources. Speakers blare campaign songs from government ministries and employees dressed in Chavez colors hand out fliers outside. State television runs almost nonstop “yes” plugs, and some government workers complain of pressure to vote with Chavez or lose their jobs.
Critics say Chavez has far too much power already, with supporters dominating state and local governments as well as the courts, the legislature, the electoral council and the state news media. They point out that the only country in the Americas that allows indefinite re-election is Cuba, hardly a democracy.
Chavez says he needs more time to deepen the “revolution” —- that other Venezuelan politicians spent decades marginalizing the poor, and he needs more than 10 years to undo the damage.
As Chavez brushes aside criticism by attacking his accusers as agents of “the empire,” many of his followers dismiss the opposition’s arguments altogether.