WASHINGTON—Hugo Chavez’s victory in Sunday’s 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 him—from Brazil’s Getulio Vargas in the 1930s, Argentina’s Juan Peron in the 1940s and ’50s, Mexico’s Luis Echeverria in the 1970s and Peru’s Alan Garcia in the 1980s—this support is based in part on a cultural disposition that trumps economic results or moral considerations in many people’s 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 vote—9 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 opposition—and lost the state of Merida, governed by a Chavista.

If in next year’s legislative elections the opposition obtains similar results, it will control almost half of the National Assembly—a 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 Chavez’s base in the major urban centers, where Venezuela’s 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 Chavez’s defeat in Petare, a major slum in Caracas, cannot be overstated. The penetration by the opposition into Chavez’s 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 poverty—temporarily, at least—through 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 Venezuela’s 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 higher—at 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 Chavez’s model—a model that fits the classic definition of populism as expressed by a former Panamanian president: “If you hire your niece, it’s called nepotism; if you hire somebody else’s niece, it’s called solidarity.”

Sunday’s 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 Chavez’s juggernaut, the Venezuelan president still does not command enough power to achieve his totalitarian dream.

Lest Chavez’s 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, Chavez’s relentless efforts notwithstanding, is still far from being a second Cuba. And that is the exclusive merit of his valiant foes.