With 94 percent of the votes counted, Venezuela’s National Election Council announced late Feb. 15 the results of the referendum on term limits. Some 6 million “yes” voters, 54.4 percent, approved the amendment to lift term limits. A million fewer, 45.6 percent, dissented.
Lifting term limits opens the door for President Hugo Chavez to run for a third term in 2012.
The turnout increased from the December 2007 election. Sixty-eight percent came out to vote Feb. 15 up from 56 percent in 2007 when the Chavez government sustained its only electoral defeat in ten years. At issue then was approval of a complex package of 69 constitutional amendments, including removal of term limits.
Gains achieved over the last ten years by the Chavez government account for some of its continuing strong electoral support. U.S. economist Mark Weisbrot and colleagues recently documented advances on www.cepr.net. Among them: households in poverty down 39 percent, social spending per person tripled, infant mortality down one third, and unemployment reduced from 11.3 to 7.8 percent. Over 5 years, Venezuela’s GDP grew 94.7 percent.
In an interview shortly before official results were released, Jesse Chacón, communication and information minister, said all Venezuelans should feel proud because they are living in a participatory democracy. “We are on the path of participatory democracy. In all of Europe and Latin America, an amendment like this one would not be approved by the people, but by congress,” he said.
In a speech from the presidential offices, Chavez congratulated the Venezuelan people on the vote, including those who voted “no” saying it is a victory for Venezuela and “democratic, humanist, and Bolivarian virtues,” referring to Simon Bolivar the Venezuelan who championed Latin American independence from colonial Spain.
Scenarios marking earlier elections resurfaced: right wing student demonstrations trumpeted by the mostly opposition media, arrests of a few soldiers in contact allegedly with a U.S. agent, Colombian paramilitaries seized on Venezuelan soil and discovery of an arms cache.
One big twist was youth reporter Pedro Carvajalino’s airport confrontation Jan. 9 with Globovisión director Federico Ravell. Carvajalino, a reporter for government-supported youth channel Ávila-TV, confronted the media bigwig who was alongside opposition party leaders, returning from an anti-Chavez strategy meeting in Puerto Rico. With cameras rolling Carvajalino accused Ravell and opposition leaders of meeting with U.S. officials to fine tune anti-referendum strategies and receiving $3 million in U.S. funds. The explosive news story bolstered Chavez supporters claims that the U.S. will do anything to undermine the Chavez administration.
The opposition cause also took a hit also when police found 100 Molotov cocktails in a truck of anti-Chavez students engaged in a rock throwing, tear gas melee.
Just before the Feb. 15 vote the digital universe was dominated by Venezuela’s expulsion of rightist Spanish politician Luis Herrero, who had called Chavez a dictator and criticized the National Election Council for adding two hours to the Feb.15 voting.
Even former Polish President Lech Walesa, an anti-communist hero, tried to get into the act of provocations by trying to campaign on behalf of the opposition under the cover of private meetings with individuals and institutions “interested in the history of democratic changes in Poland.” When the government warned Walesa that his trip would be watched, Walesa cancelled the trip.
Perhaps the most disturbing pre-election act was the ransacking and vandalism of a Caracas synagogue. Charges that the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Venezuela during the war on Gaza led to the anti-Semitic act waned after Jewish leaders commended officials for the quick arrests of eleven suspects, including eight policemen. The government pledged to fully investigate the attack.
Term limits for U.S. president was added to the constitution after Franklin Roosevelt won four consecutive elections, restructuring the U.S. economy more favorably for working people through the New Deal programs. But no term limits exist for senators and congressmen. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has twice sought to overcome constitutional term limits in that country, yet has not been painted as a “dictator” for those efforts.
During the campaign, President Chavez traveled throughout the country engaging large crowds almost daily. Venezuela’s new Unified Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV) sent activists door to door to explain the significance of the upcoming vote. Disciplined PSUV youth groups maintained a street presence to counter young right-wing brawlers.