President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is not exactly on a roll. Yes, oil prices remain close to $100 per barrel, and there are worse things that can happen than receiving tax-free revenues of up to $300 million every day. But on the eve of a Dec. 2 referendum, called by Chávez, that would substantially modify the constitution he himself wrote just a few years ago, he seems more isolated and weaker, domestically and abroad, than at any time since the 2003 oil workers' strike.
Now Chávez is nervous. The constitutional reforms he proposes are neither necessary nor dramatic. The most controversial change—the possibility of indefinite or perpetual re-election—is not relevant until 2012, when his current term ends. Other modifications, such as replacing elected local officials with appointed provincial councils, eliminating the independence of the central bank, or establishing limits on private property, are not inconsequential, but Chávez could pursue his construction of "21st-century socialism" without them. Yet instead of just letting matters rest, he has chosen to challenge his opposition and reaffirm his mandate.
He may come to regret his boldness. Polls this week indicate that the electorate is slightly tilted against the reforms. They also indicate that if a significant number of Venezuelans turn out to vote, as they were urged to do by foreign dignitaries ranging from Jimmy Carter to former Sandinista vice president of Nicaragua Sergio Ramirez, the result could become complicated for Chávez. He has already suffered the defection of one of his closest military supporters, former minister of defense Raúl Isaías Baduel, who called the referendum an "institutional coup d'état," and faces a swelling, vigorous and increasingly strident opposition from the Catholic Church and the country's university students, traditionally a bellwether of government popularity. On the eve of the referendum a growing number of analysts (though not international electoral observers: Chávez ruled against inviting them) were predicting an extremely close outcome, and a rising probability of significant vote tampering.
All of this perhaps explains Chávez's otherwise incomprehensible antics in the international arena over the past weeks. First he picked a major quarrel with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the socialist prime minister of Spain, by accusing Zapatero's predecessor, conservative José María Aznar, of being a "fascist serpent, worse than a human being." Then, when Juan Carlos I, the Spanish monarch, told him to "shut up," Chávez had an ally, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, attack Spanish companies, forcing the king to abandon the room where all of this was taking place, at the 16th Ibero-American Summit in Chile.
Subsequently, instead of trying to mend fences with the Spaniards, the Venezuelan leader demanded that Juan Carlos apologize. Needless to say, this has not occurred, and Chávez loudly announced he was "freezing" relations with Spain. He also "froze" relations with his neighbor, Colombia, after its president, Alvaro Uribe, cut off a misguided mediation effort by Chávez that Uribe had originally approved, whereby the Caracas caudillo would attempt to free a number of Colombian, American and French hostages held by the FARC, the main Colombian guerrilla group. Chávez responded with his now customary insults—Uribe, he said, was nothing more than a "puppet" of the United States—and recalled his ambassador in Bogotá.
But beyond the eccentricities, there is a logic to all of this. Chávez is trying to re-ignite nationalist fervor in Venezuela against outside enemies. Neighboring Colombia, a country with which Venezuela has historical rivalries and an immense current trade deficit, and former colonial ruler Spain fit the bill nicely, even if Washington and the Bush administration would be preferable. Chávez hopes that these new conflicts will save the day for him electorally in two ways: first, by mobilizing public opinion, and second, and more importantly, by constructing a before-the-fact justification for dismissing possible postelection claims by the opposition that the vote was rigged or stolen. If and when the opposition seeks international support for its potential accusations of electoral fraud—and, mainly, if it begins to receive such support—Chávez will be able to point to the previous conflicts as proof of an international conspiracy, hatched in Washington, Madrid and the Colombian capital, to unseat him and quash his Bolivarian Revolution.
Hugo Chávez's power is not at stake. Even if he loses he remains in office with wide backing from the poorer sectors Venezuelan society. But he has damaged his domestic and international standing more than ever before. Now only oil prices, economic largesse and the Cuban security apparatus around him are on his side. That's not bad. But it might not be enough forever.