Thursday, November 29, 2007

Trouble for Hugo

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Venezuelans are set to go to the polls this coming Sunday, December 2, to vote in a referendum on constitutional reforms that would expand President Hugo Chavez's powers and allow him to remain in power indefinitely (with the abolition of presidential term limits).

There seemed to be no doubt, at first, that passage was inevitable. Chavez would win, or, put differently, would not allow himself to lose. But recent polls suggest that the outcome is uncertain. Indeed, some polls put the No side in the lead. And Chavez, the Tyrant of Caracas, is not amused:

President Hugo Chávez is encountering unexpectedly strong opposition to a referendum on constitutional reform which would cement his rule in Venezuela, with violent clashes between rival demonstrations and security forces feeding a mood that the country is at a turning point.

According to opinion polls, the socialist leader could lose this Sunday's vote amid unease over his radical policies and ambition to stay in power for decades.

Defections from his movement's ranks and food shortages have galvanised a student-led opposition campaign which is due to climax at a final rally in downtown Caracas today.

Defeat would stymie Chávez's effort to abolish term limits and oblige him to step down in five years. He has expressed a desire to keep running for president until 2030.

The president, a formidable and charismatic campaigner, has cast the referendum as a verdict on his rule and said anyone who supported him but voted against would be a traitor. "It's black and white. A vote against the reform is a vote against Chávez," he told state television.

He said he would enter a period of "profound reflection" if he lost, but dismissed the prospect. "We're obligated to victory, to continue triumphing. This is a battle of world proportions."

The referendum is not about reforming the constitution so much as it is about entrenching Chavez's tyrannical rule. In other words, it's personal, as he himself has acknowledged. It is not "a battle of world proportions," of course, but he is fighting as if this is the fight of his life, a fight for his life, and, "obligated" or not, he will do whatever it takes to win.

For example, troops have used tear gas on student protesters opposed to Chavez's reforms. (Although it seems that the military is divided.) These courageous and determined students have taken the lead in speaking out and demonstrating against what they correctly see as their president's quest to obliterate democracy in their country. But it isn't just tear gas they're facing out in the streets. Some have been attacked by gunmen, thugs no doubt in Chavez's employ. There have been more protests this week -- more tear gas and rubber bullets, more clashes with police. Given that the more formal opposition has been beaten into submission, given that Chavez effectively controls the legislature, the judiciary, and the media, hope rests with these students and those who, like them, are prepared to take a firm stand against tyranny by voting No on Sunday.

But do the protests even matter, other than to express disaffection with Chavez, other than to raise awareness of what is going on in Venezuela? A poll conducted by a firm close to Chavez puts the Yes side ahead by as many as seven points. No wonder Chavez can be so confident. No wonder he can pre-emptively attack the No side's accusations of fraud if and when it loses. No wonder he can assert that the referendum "cannot fail". No wonder he can threaten to resign if he loses. He won't lose. He won't allow it. The entire process has been rigged, and the referendum is no exception. If he can't win through intimidation, he will find some other way.

Whatever the polls say, Chavez's power grab is pretty much a sure thing.

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