Putting aside concerns over a worsening economy, rising crime and increasing social polarization, Venezuelan voters gave President Hugo Chavez a resounding victory Sunday on a constitutional amendment that will allow him to run for reelection indefinitely.
With 94% of votes counted, the National Electoral Commission said "yes" votes outnumbered "no" by nearly 1 million, 54.3% to 45.7%.
Chavez framed the vote -- and his staying in office after his current term ends in early 2013 -- as crucial to making his socialist Bolivarian Revolution permanent. Speaking from the balcony of the presidential Miraflores Palace, Chavez told the thousands of people assembled that the vote was a victory of "truth against lies, dignity of the homeland versus those who would deny the homeland."
"This is another memorable page in our history," Chavez said. "We raise the flag of victory, popular victory."
Opposition forces, on the other hand, said the referendum was another power grab by a leader who has slowly consolidated authority for himself. But they had no answer for Chavez's obvious bond with the dispossessed and underprivileged.
Most voters apparently agreed with Nancy Plaza, a kindergarten teacher who spoke after voting in the working-class Las Minas section of eastern Caracas. She said she voted "yes" for her "children, for the country and for the future."
"President Chavez is the first president who cared about the poor, who truly loves his country and its people," said Plaza, 60, adding that through Chavez's medical assistance program, she now gets free exams and medicine for her heart condition that used to cost a big portion of her meager income.
Over his decade in office, Chavez has been a polarizing figure, characterizing his opponents as imperialist lackeys and "squalid ones." He has stridently criticized the United States as an imperialist power sucking the lifeblood from Latin Americans. But he has established a solid base of support among the poor by using Venezuela's oil wealth to finance programs to deliver education, healthcare and cooperative ownership of businesses.
In December 2007, Chavez lost a similar plebiscite in which the abolition of presidential term limits was bundled with 68 other constitutional amendments. Analysts said his cause was helped this time by simplifying the vote to just the term limits issue and by extending its benefits to all elected officials, not just himself, thereby motivating politicians across Venezuela to get out the vote.
At a news conference Saturday, he told reporters that staying in office more than 10 years was not unusual, citing U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, France's Jacques Chirac and Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, all of whom governed longer than a decade.
"He has made us feel good as persons with self-respect, irrespective of our color, age or economic class," said Mariela Vasquez, an office manager from Las Minas who said she is studying for a law degree, thanks to Chavez's Mission Sucre, which pays for adults to go to college.
Speculation turned Sunday night on how Chavez's victory would affect his domestic and foreign policy amid increasingly difficult economic conditions caused by the sharp decline in oil prices. Venezuela's budget derives more than half its revenue from crude, the price of which has fallen by more than two-thirds since July.
"He is still going to face major challenges governing Venezuela, owing to the plummeting price of oil," said Bruce Bagley, a political science professor at University of Miami.
An advisor in the Foreign Affairs Ministry said Chavez had enough cash reserves to maintain social programs and "wait out" the oil price drop. As for foreign policy, Chavez is hoping to improve relations with the United States under President Obama, he said.
At the Saturday news conference, Chavez said he was "disposed" to talk to Obama at any time and said a good forum might be the Summit of the Americas scheduled in Trinidad and Tobago in April.
Shortly before taking the oath of office, Obama told a reporter that Chavez had not been helpful in fostering hemispheric cooperation and goodwill. Other officials in the new administration have criticized him for allegedly providing haven to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and for his good relations with Iran, which the U.S. lists as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Chavez has been relatively low-key in responding to the comments, said the advisor, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
However, Bagley, the Miami professor, said: "The anti-American winds in the region have shifted and, always the opportunist, Chavez appears to be shifting with them.
"Chavez has backed away from his hard line against Obama and diplomatic ties with Washington toward a more flexible position in which he recognized potential benefits for Venezuela and Latin America from renewed conversations."
Chavez has joked that he'll stay in office until 2049, and his opponents, who see him as a power-crazed autocrat, tend to take the joke seriously.
Javier Corrales, an Amherst College professor, said Chavez's victory could devastate the opposition, which was hoping to build on the defeat of the 2007 plebiscite, as well as on victories in November by opposition gubernatorial candidates in five of 22 states.
"Chavez raised the specter of the poor losing the missions if he is not reelected . . . ," said Cynthia McClintock, a professor of political science at George Washington University. "The opposition has tried to debunk the importance of the social programs, but obviously that hasn't rung true with people."
Improving relations with Chavez would help the United States improve ties with all of Latin America, she added. "It's important for the United States to play a role . . . in which the U.S. is perceived as a positive influence."
Corrales was pessimistic that better relations would ensue, saying Chavez had "nothing to gain with better relations with the United States."
Luis Lander, a political economist at Central University of Venezuela, said Chavez was sending unmistakable signals that "he is interested in lowering the tone of the conflict with the United States."
"I don't see the two countries having good relations," he said, "but they could at least be less confrontational than they were under President Bush."