WASHINGTONHugo Chavezs victory in Sundays constitutional referendum in Venezuela will allow him to run for re-election indefinitely, but it does not mean he will be able to establish a totalitarian state anytime soon.
A decade after coming to power, Chavez commands strong support despite high inflation, food shortages, rampant crime and the toxic atmosphere stemming from his thuggish practices. As with many populists before himfrom Brazils Getulio Vargas in the 1930s, Argentinas Juan Peron in the 1940s and 50s, Mexicos Luis Echeverria in the 1970s and Perus Alan Garcia in the 1980sthis support is based in part on a cultural disposition that trumps economic results or moral considerations in many peoples minds.
Even though the opposition was not able to defeat Chavez this time, the referendum confirmed that he still faces millions of Venezuelans who abhor his regime. The opposition obtained 45.6 percent of the vote9 percentage points more than in 2006, when Chavez won his third term. The no vote won in five key states and got more than 40 percent in nine others. He was only able to win in one of the five states governed by the oppositionand lost the state of Merida, governed by a Chavista.
If in next years legislative elections the opposition obtains similar results, it will control almost half of the National Assemblya big shift with respect to the current situation, with Chavez in total control because the opposition boycotted legislative elections in 2005.
Perhaps more significantly, the results confirm that Chavezs base in the major urban centers, where Venezuelas biggest slums are concentrated, has been seriously eroded: His power is increasingly reliant on the more rural or provincial parts of the country. The symbolism of Chavezs defeat in Petare, a major slum in Caracas, cannot be overstated. The penetration by the opposition into Chavezs former base has much to do with inflation and food shortages, a social drama that I witnessed a few months ago during an extensive visit to Caracas poorest quarters. In the current world recession, things are likely to get worse.
Like most Latin American countries of late, Venezuela has been able to reduce povertytemporarily, at leastthrough the redistribution of revenues generated by the export of commodities. According to a recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, poverty in Venezuela has been reduced over 10 years from 43 percent to 26 percent of the population. The fact that Chavez is now encountering resistance in so many of Venezuelas slums implies that redistribution has reached its electoral limits. It can no longer conceal the many social ills affecting ordinary Venezuelans, including a crime rate that is already higher than that of drug-ravaged Colombia.
In order to meet its import bill, Venezuela needs the price of its crude oil to be above $45 a barrel. But to maintain his vast system of patronage and subsidies, Chavez needs the price to be even higherat least $85 a barrel. That the government has decided to take $12 billion from its reserves to make up for the fall in revenue is further evidence that the collapse in oil prices is a direct threat to Chavezs modela model that fits the classic definition of populism as expressed by a former Panamanian president: If you hire your niece, its called nepotism; if you hire somebody elses niece, its called solidarity.
Sundays referendum was marked by irregularities in at least 20 percent of the precincts, according to the well-respected Sumate monitoring organization. During the run-up, the government controlled 85 percent of TV airtime and unleashed violent mobs to intimidate the opposition. But one thing is certain: While the opposition does not command enough support to overcome Chavezs juggernaut, the Venezuelan president still does not command enough power to achieve his totalitarian dream.
Lest Chavezs opponents succumb to melancholy in the face of the setback, they should take heart in this: Millions of Cubans would probably trade their current tyranny for Venezuela, which, Chavezs relentless efforts notwithstanding, is still far from being a second Cuba. And that is the exclusive merit of his valiant foes.