President Hugo Chavez’s revolution seemed to age overnight, its dynamic and aura of invincibility shattered by voters’ narrow rejection Sunday of his constitutional reform package.
A year after Chavez won a landslide reelection, millions of his supporters stayed home rather than vote for his 69 proposals, which included a provision that would have allowed him to seek reelection indefinitely.
Clues to the exodus could be found on the crime pages of Monday’s newspapers, daily variations on the theme of violence and impunity, which Chavez seems incapable of or uninterested in combating. One headline told of 38 slayings committed in Caracas over a two-day period.
Other clues could be found in headlines about hours-long lines at government-subsidized supermarkets for basic food such as beans, chicken and milk. Or in the carry-on baggage of a middle-class woman on a Bogota-to-Caracas flight Friday: She had stuffed her bag not with rum or electronics, but with eight liters of milk powder, an item scarce in Venezuela.
In a country awash in oil dollars, inflation is rising at an annual pace of 24%, according to a survey of food prices conducted by the Venezuelan Federation of Teachers. Many blame high prices on Chavez’ socialist policies, which discourage private investment and industrial output.
University students helped galvanize voter disenchantment. Their street demonstrations helped rally the vote to deliver Chavez’s first electoral defeat, by the narrowest of margins, after his nearly nine years in office.
“After this, Chavez is not what he was before,” said political analyst Fausto Maso. “He still has the money, the institutions and his movement. But now he has someone in front of him that he has no answer for.”
The anti-Chavez faction now has new and youthful faces, not those of opposition politicians in whom voters have shown little confidence, Maso said.
Observers wonder what Chavez will do next. As Maso wrote in a newspaper column Monday, no one expects the politically kinetic Chavez to “sit with his arms crossed.”
In comments made by telephone on a state television talk show Monday, Chavez hinted he might try to get some of the referendum items approved by other means. As a chief executive with near-unanimous congressional support, the fiery Chavez still has options.
“Here there will be no steps back, no retreats,” Chavez said. “At this point I’m thinking of presenting a new formula, to expand and launch a new perspective, to raise the speed of the process.”
Before looking ahead, Chavez confronted Sunday’s horrible math. The “yes” votes for his proposed reform package represented a slippage of 3 million votes from the 7.3 million votes he garnered in his reelection bid a year ago. Of those 3 million, only half a million migrated to the victorious opposition.
“The opposition maintained its vote and we didn’t,” Chavez said Monday, suggesting that the timing wasn’t right for the referendum. “Maybe the nation needs to mature more before we construct socialism.”
Many of his supporters became disenchanted with Chavez’s policies but not enough to vote against the man, leading to massive abstentions. Analysts said some Chavez supporters may feel they have less to gain from his massive social outreach programs that provide jobs, healthcare, education and discounted food to the poor.
Surveys in October and late November by firms including Datanalisis found an erosion of public confidence in Chavez’s leadership and a decrease in the number of voters identifying themselves as Chavez supporters.
“Within that framework was the growing perception of reduced liberty, democracy and pluralism,” Datanalisis President Jose Antonio Gil Yepes said Monday.
Political observers questioned Chavez’s electoral savvy in his proposal to create new districts whose leaders he would appoint and whose powers would supersede those of elected mayors and governors. Those same governors and mayors, facing a dilution of their power, had little incentive to help Chavez get out the vote.
Opposition political leaders fought for face time during jubilant television interviews early Monday morning after the National Electoral Council declared the defeat of Chavez’s reforms.
But standing out was Yon Goicoechea, a student at Andres Bello Catholic University who first emerged after youths rallied to oppose Chavez’s cancellation in May of opposition broadcaster RCTV. Photogenic and a natural speaker, the youth’s future in politics seems assured, if he wants one.
Student opposition grew after Nov. 2, when details of the reform package revealed that Chavez wanted to change the way university rectors were elected, which students saw as a threat to university autonomy. Had the reforms passed, blue-collar university employees would have been able to vote on university rectors, a decision now reserved for faculty and students.
As protests grew in the wake of RCTV’s loss of its broadcast license, Chavez first described students as misled and then attacked them as spoiled brats. The criticism only motivated many of the nation’s 1.4 million university students to show up at the polls.
“This country won’t function if President Chavez gets the power that he is after,” Frances Lopez, an 18-year-old student at New Sparta University in Caracas, said after voting. “All the controls will be in his hands.”
William Kasbar, an engineering student at Central University of Venezuela, also voted against the Chavez measures.
“They were trying to close us in, isolate us and take away our rights,” he said. “Like citizens in a democracy are supposed to do, we stood up to them.”
“All this power is supposed to be going to the people, but it’s really going to the president.”
Maso, the political analyst, said the students have created “a different game” for Chavez.
“Before, the opposition was always the same old politicians who were divided and not trusted, who did nothing but speak on TV. They were all about the past,” Maso said.
“Now it’s the students who may define the future. They said to vote, and everyone followed.”