Ariana Cubillos/AP
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chavez’s Campaign to Remove Term Limits Worries Observers

February 12, 2009 12:05 PM
by Josh Katz
Venezuela’s president is pushing for his citizens to approve a referendum to allow his perpetual re-election, but critics worry that he is already too powerful.

Chavez Seeks to End Term Limits

Venezuelans will vote on a referendum Sunday about whether to allow President Hugo Chavez to obtain unlimited terms in office. The country’s constitution currently limits presidents to two terms; Chavez’ second term ends in 2012, but if the referendum passes he’ll remain president as long as he continues to win elections, The Arizona Republic reports.

The government is putting substantial resources behind the referendum campaign. There are jingles in subways encouraging riders to vote “Yes,” and state television and radio have called for approval of the referendum while shutting out the opposition, Bloomberg writes.

According to Bloomberg, “The campaign itself crystallizes the opposition’s main argument for maintaining term limits: Chavez, who controls the congress, courts, military and state oil company, has turned the government into a tool of his personal political agenda.”

Venezuelans voted against a similar proposal to end term limits in December 2007 by 2 percentage points. The December 2007 vote was different, however, because it applied only to the office of president. The new referrendum would allow all elected officials to seek re-election indefinitely, according to The Arizona Republic.

A January Datanalisis poll found that 51.5 percent of the 1,300 respondents favored the current referendum; 48.1 percent were opposed. But the margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 2.72 percentage points, according to Bloomberg.

In terms of media coverage, The Grupo de Monitoreo de Medios “found that from Jan. 22 to Feb. 4, 93 percent of coverage at the state news channel Venezolana de Television favored the constitutional referendum; 7 percent was neutral,” Bloomberg writes.

The referendum wording on the ballot is also misleading and biased, according to Bloomberg: “It simply lists referendum numbers that would be changed, and asks if voters favor ‘increasing the people’s political power.’”

“We’re seeing an unbalanced campaign without precedent,” said Vicente Diaz, one of five directors on the National Electoral Council. “Government ministries are openly involved,” Bloomberg reports.

Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador recently succeeded in achieving extended term limits. Daniel Ortega is currently attempting the same thing in Nicaragua, according to the Republic.

Background: Chavez struggles to maintain popularity as country’s problems mount

On Feb. 11 Chavez told state television that the government had uncovered a plot against him. He said members of the military were detained for collaborating with another member of the country’s military who is hiding in the United States, according to Reuters.

But Reuters suggests that “many voters are likely to be skeptical” because Chavez has made such announcements in the past, also coinciding with voting and also involving the United States. Before regional elections at the end of 2008, Chavez revealed a plot by members of the armed forces to assassinate him before regional elections.

Chavez still has a great deal of support from the nation’s poor; the government spends a substantial amount of money on “low-cost housing, pension programs and health care,” according to the Republic. However, Venezuela’s inflation is more than 30 percent, economic growth has greatly decelerated since 2007, and the price of oil has fallen from about $134 in July to about $40.

Furthermore, Venezuelan Program for Education and Action in Human Rights indicates that the murder rate increased from 25 out of 100,000 people in 1999 to 48 in 2007, and kidnappings are on the rise as well.

Opponents of Chavez won control in Caracas and “the country’s three most populous states” in November’s state and municipal elections, revealing the president’s dwindling control.

Nevertheless, the IVAD and Grupo Siglo XXI polling groups found in November that Chavez had an approval rating of 60 percent.

Opinion & Analysis: Ending term limits, and Chavez’s pro-referendum campaign

On the UK Web site VenezuelanAnalysis.com, Diana Raby conveys the argument in favor of eliminating term limits in Venezuela. She notes that the UK has similar rules, “where Margaret Thatcher won four elections for the Conservatives … and Tony Blair won three times for Labour.” Raby argues that the reason the international community is so opposed to the referendum is because they disagree with Chavez’s ideology. “But he has demonstrated time and again his commitment to serving the people—the poor, the workers, the excluded—of Venezuela, and they have reaffirmed their confidence in him,” she says.

But a Washington Post editorial argues that the only reason this referendum might pass is because of Chavez’s campaign of intimidation. The editorial also notes that Chavez has found a new scapegoat to distract the public from the country’s economic problems and corruption and to consolidate his power. No longer able to blame George W. Bush for the nation’s troubles, national media is criticizing Jews in Venezuela for not lambasting Israel for its campaign in Gaza.

Chavez said, “Don’t Jews repudiate the Holocaust? And this is precisely what we’re witnessing.” A commenter on a pro-government Web site went so far as to say that citizens should “publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street, shopping center or park,” and boycott businesses owned by Jews, seize their property, and demonstrate against them.

Key Player: Hugo Chavez

Chavez is a polarizing figure whose political career has had its ups and downs, writes Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and a Latin American studies professor at Georgetown University, in Foreign Affairs. Chavez is an icon for the international left and a dictator with dangerous ambitions and a strong destructive potential thanks to Venezuela’s oil riches.

A former army paratrooper, Chavez first made headlines as the leader of a failed 1992 coup. He did some jail time for his involvement. He came to power in a democratic election in 1998, but has since defaulted on his promise to bridge the gap between rich and poor. He survived a two-day coup in 2002 and massive protests throughout his rule.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines