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Venezuelan Voters Reject Chavez’s Bid to Widen Powers

December 3, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Venezuelans voted against expanding the power of President Hugo Chavez and imposing a socialist system in the country in a weekend referendum vote. A former Venezuelan trade minister and a professor of Latin American history assess the impact of the poll.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Venezuela votes “no” to giving Hugo Chavez more power. We start with a report from Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News in Caracas.

JONATHAN RUGMAN, ITV News Correspondent: Firecrackers in Caracas. After almost nine years of the Chavez revolution, the king’s crown is knocked awry. It’s a narrow victory, just 51 percent, and one which leaves his opponents gasping in disbelief. Hugo Chavez given a beating.

It’s a quarter past one in the morning, and we’ve just learned that the Chavez referendum has spectacularly backfired against him, Venezuelans preferring to keep the checks and balances on their democracy, rather than giving Mr. Chavez the power to run for office for life.

Inside the opposition headquarters, it was a rollercoaster of a night. The result was several hours late. Troops were mustering outside a tense election center. Something was up.

The president’s critics feared he would rig the ballot against them, so they sang the national anthem to keep their spirits up.

Yet the president’s supporters were singing it, too, baffled as to why Chavez wasn’t declaring victory from his palace balcony. The usual firework display had been cancelled, and the leader sometimes denounced as Latin America’s biggest loud-mouth was strangely silent. And when he did appear on television, the Bush-bashing swagger had gone.

HUGO CHAVEZ, President of Venezuela (through translator): We always had nerves of steel to withstand any result, and the difference was microscopic. It’s what I call a photo-finish.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Only a year ago, he was re-elected with over 60 percent of the vote. Yet last week, downtown Caracas was turned into a sea of socialist red. Chavez still has five years in office left, five years to win back the three million voters who deserted him last night.

For now, the boldest social experiment that Latin America has ever seen rolls on.

HUGO CHAVEZ: Que tal, Fidel? How are you? I am very well, OK.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Comradely greetings to Fidel Castro there, but across town the fervent hope that the Chavez brand of revolutionary socialism is now in retreat.

Venezuelans reject "blank check"

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: The constitutional changes rejected by Venezuela's voters yesterday would have expanded Chavez's powers, scrapped presidential term limits, and hastened Venezuela's socialist transformation.

For two perspectives on the results and their significance, we turn to Moises Naim, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine. He was Venezuela's trade minister from 1989 to 1990.

And Miguel Tinker-Salas, professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and co-author of "Venezuela: Hugo Chavez and the Decline of an Exceptional Democracy." Both are dual U.S. and Venezuelan citizens.

And welcome to you both.

Moises Naim, here's a man, President Chavez, who had received 63 percent of the vote just last December for president. He couldn't muster even 50 percent yesterday to expand his powers. What happened?

MOISES NAIM, Editor-in-Chief, Foreign Policy Magazine: The Venezuelan people, including many of his supporters, as much as three million and four million people that had voted for him before, decided that they didn't want to give him a blank check, that the notion that he would be given the possibility of being the only elected official in the country without term limits was not -- they were not willing to swallow that idea.

MARGARET WARNER: Was that it, Professor, they just didn't want to give him this blank check?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS, Professor, Pomona College: No, I think it was a little bit more complicated than that. I mean, we have a situation in Venezuela where you had food scarcity, where you have had an ongoing problem with the delivery of social services, where it wasn't very clear I think to the Venezuelan population this complicated package, in many ways, which included things as complex as redistributing geometry of power to the actual questions of social policy and the re-election.

So I think that there was a congruence of factors that came together here to allow the defeat of Chavez.

Economics, division hurt turnout

MARGARET WARNER: Moises Naim, there are reports of just empty shelves with basic food missing, even, say, milk. Were economic pocketbook issues also a factor?

MOISES NAIM: Of course. In Venezuela, as the professor said, they don't understand why this country is giving money away to all countries around the world in the neighborhood and bankrolling a bankrupt Cuban economy and everything else. And then they go to the stores, and they then can't find very basic staples.

But, you see, in the final rally President Chavez said that this vote was not about any of that, this vote was about him. He said, "If you vote for the yes," meaning accepting the constitutional change, "you're voting for me. If you vote for no, you do not accept the constitutional change, you're voting for George Bush."

So he converted, he transformed the conversation in something that was a referendum about his popularity, and his support, and his ability to persuade his stalwart supporters to continue to support him, and he didn't get that.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor, in the past, he has been able to use this sort of populist, "it's all about me" message, has he not, to great effect, and as about standing up to the U.S.

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: He has, and that was largely about the campaign, the primetime slogan. And I think that the reality between, as I pointed out, the economic situation and the crisis that many felt in terms of food production and distribution and other issues, such as basically potholes and garbage collection and other of those basic issues.

And the reality, also, that some of these reforms went to the very heart of even his own political supporters. It challenged governors; it challenged mayors by opening up new political spaces. And I think many of them did not get the vote out. Many of them sat on their hands rather than face the possibility of now confronting communal councils that actually would challenge their power and compete with them for budgets.

MARGARET WARNER: And the turnout was also unusually low, was it not? I mean, they'd had 75 percent turnout in the presidential election. Only 56 percent yesterday. It looks like a lot of his own supporters from the poor neighborhoods just didn't come out.

MOISES NAIM: Yes, we don't have final numbers yet of how was the geographical distribution and distribution of those, of abstention, but it looks like a lot of neighborhoods and regions where Chavez has great support just stayed home.

No change "for now"

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor, what lesson do you think, listening to what Hugo Chavez had to say today and just being a student of the man, do you think he's going to take from this, in terms of his performance going forward? Is this going to clip either his agenda or his style?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: I think he's a very resilient politician. We've seen that. He employed the term "por ahora" last night, "for now." He did that in 1992, as well. I think he's an astute politician. He will take away from this that he needs to tone down some of his rhetoric, build bridges, focus on the social programs that have proven effective in the past, whether they're subsidized food, medical services.

And I think he's going to revisit this issue. After all, he is still president until 2012. And I don't see that the opposition, even in a referendum for a recall, could actually defeat him. So in that context, I think we'll see a revisiting of many of these issues over the course of the next few years.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Moises Naim, if he is already heavily using Venezuela's oil, billions, to subsidize food, gasoline, something like 7 cents a gallon, medical care, what more can he do with the present socialist model to improve people's lives that he isn't already doing?

MOISES NAIM: And that's the essence of the constitutional change. He didn't need the change of constitution. The only essential part of that constitution is for him to retain power and to expand his power.

And he can do much better for the country if he alters some of his policies that are not working. And, in fact, there is plenty of evidence that they're impoverishing many of the Venezuelans and that yesterday's turnout shows it.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, are you talking about, well, he'd have to actually policies and give up this socialist model, or do you think he can and will take this as a warning to perform better, maybe give less money away abroad and spend it at home, but continue down the path he's going, which is to promote, to turn Venezuela into the new Cuba, in terms of a leader of a leftist model, revolution in Latin America?

MOISES NAIM: We don't know yet. And what we know is that this is a very confusing model, where calling it a socialist model is a misnomer. A lot of what's going on in Venezuela has absolutely nothing to do with socialism. Thanks to Chavez, those close to him and groups, they are very powerful economic financial groups that have made huge Russian-like fortunes.

By using the oil money, there is a consumption that is booming. There is all sorts of characteristics of the country today that will never be recognized as socialist by anyone.


MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: Well, I think that Chavez -- this is an important lesson for Chavez. He's learned -- I think he's taken from -- we saw last night -- some lessons as to the limits of his power. This really circumscribes in some ways the limits of his power.

But it also circumscribes the limits of power for the opposition, because I think, as much as Chavez will reflect on it, the opposition needs to reflect on it. Their vote really did not increase that much over the course of the one year from the presidential election until now.

So I think that we're going to see Chavez continue in much of the same programs. He might actually focus more on the delivery of service and the actual bread-and-butter issues and less on the lofty ideals. But I don't think that, from any evidence we have in the past, that Chavez himself or his program will fundamentally change. Rather, the actual presentation and the implementation might change.

Vote shows potential opposition

MARGARET WARNER: And, quickly, the opposition. Did we see a new, revitalized opposition? They've always been very split in the past.

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: I don't think so. I think what we saw was a new face for the opposition. If you go back three or four months, the opposition was very dejected. The political parties were largely spent, and they didn't have a clear leadership.

The students emerged on the national scene, and the students gave it a new impetus, a new face. But even over the long haul, it didn't appear that the students made inroads in the social areas that Chavez has real support.

So I think that we have a new face, but we don't have yet a new opposition. They have to move from the area of simply opposing Chavez into providing actual concrete proposals.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think is the future, Moses Naim, of this opposition?

MOISES NAIM: The future and the big surprise in these recent developments is the appearance of the pro-Chavez groups that are against Chavez. There has been an emergence of very, very interesting leaders and very interesting groups, where it used to be stalwart Chavez supporters that are now against him.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. Moises Naim and Miguel Tinker-Salas, thank you both.

MOISES NAIM: Thank you.