Hugo Chavez showed some class when the news came through early on Monday morning that the referendum on his proposed changes to the Venezuelan constitution had gone against him. “I thank you and I congratulate you,” he said on television, addressing his opponents. “I recognise a decision the people have made. Those of you who were nervous that I wouldn’t recognise the results, you can go home quietly and celebrate.”
It was the first time Chavez had lost a vote since he was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 and there were many who doubted that he would accept defeat, especially since it was what he himself called a “photo finish”: 51% for the no, 49% for the yes. And the question is still whether he really means it, for only a week ago he was calling his opponents “fascists”, “traitors” and “mental retards”.
Nobody believed Chavez’s threat last week to “pack my bags” and leave politics if the referendum didn’t pass. He is much more inclined (as he also said last week) “to stay as long as God wills. Until the last bone of my skeleton dries up. Until the last bit of my body dries up.” He even suggested 2050 (when he will be 95) as a possible retirement date.
The referendum would have made that theoretically possible, by changing the constitution so that presidents are no longer limited to two terms. As it stands, he must leave power when his second term ends in 2013 and that is clearly not part of his plan. So what does he do now? The risk is that he does a Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe had already been Zimbabwe’s leader for 20 years when he held a referendum in 2000 on a new constitution that would have extended his own rule until 2012 and allowed him to carry out the revolution (consisting mainly of seizing the land of white farmers without compensation) that he had always dreamed of. For the first time, he lost, but he seemed to accept his defeat gracefully. However, it was the last even remotely free vote in Zimbabwe.
Since then, elections have been plagued by extensive vote rigging and a lot of government-sponsored violence. Mugabe used his parliamentary majority to push through laws that resurrected the radical provisions of the rejected constitution on the seizure of white-owned land and the predicted economic disaster ensued: Zimbabwe is now a basket case with 8 000% inflation and a quarter of its population living abroad. The rule of law is dead and Mugabe plans to stay in power well past 2012. (He’s only 83.)
It is possible that Chavez will now choose to go down a similar road. He has played by the democratic rules for nine years and until now they have enabled him to get most of what he wants. The 69 changes proposed in the referendum were his attempt to move on legally to the next stage of his revolution, not only prolonging his own rule indefinitely, but entrenching “socialism” in the constitution.
Together with crowd pleasers like cutting the working day from eight hours to six, the package of proposed changes would have ended the autonomy of the central bank and given Chavez control of monetary policy. It would have shifted power from elected mayors and state governors to local “committees” dominated by his followers, and allowed him to expropriate private property and even censor the media in an emergency.
Venezuelans, obviously including many “soft Chavistas” who always voted for him in the past, rejected Chavez’s proposals because they thought he was going too far too fast. They have shown that who they want is the “soft Chavez”, the one who has vastly improved the living standards of the poor by spending some of the country’s massive oil revenues on them, but abides by the law.
If Chavez really does abide by the outcome of the referendum, he could yet turn out to be the man who transformed Venezuela from a poverty-ridden oligarchy into a modern democratic state — sufficiently modern and democratic that it will eventually have no further use for an old-fashioned populist demagogue like him. Or he could find other ways to force through the changes that were rejected in the referendum, and drag Venezuela down the road to dictatorship, repression and even deeper poverty.
Which way will he jump? Nobody knows. Least of all him.