Venezuela: Chávez Down, Not Out

It was not a role that his political career had prepared him to play, but in the wee hours of this morning Hugo Chávez found himself in the unaccustomed position of explaining why he had lost an election. Dressed in his trademark red shirt, the 53-year-old Venezuelan president acknowledged the voters' rejection of a package of sweeping constitutional reforms that would have allowed Chávez to seek re-election indefinitely and suspend civil liberties during extended states of emergency. The stinging defeat in Sunday's referendum signified Chávez's first setback at the polls since he was first elected president in 1998, and as he congratulated his political opponents on their triumph he sought to portray his acceptance of the outcome as proof of his democratic credentials. "There is no dictatorship here," a subdued Chávez told reporters earlier today. "I believe that Venezuelan democracy is maturing."

But it was the threat to that democracy supposedly posed by the package of 69 constitutional reform proposals that enabled the country's internal opposition to overcome their own differences and finally achieve a win over Chávez. University students, Catholic bishops and erstwhile allies of the Venezuelan leader warned voters that approval of the reform measures would allow Chávez to handpick provincial and municipal officials and give him carte blanche to accelerate his government's drift toward authoritarian rule. The message apparently struck a chord with many Venezuelans, including some who had voted for Chávez in the past; the 4 million citizens who cast ballots in favor of the reforms represented a steep drop from the 7 million who gave him a landslide victory in last year's presidential balloting. U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns hailed the result as a verdict in favor of "democracy and against unlimited power," and government critics heralded the beginning of the end for the former army officer. "He lost the war yesterday, because he lost his image of invincibility," says Venezuelan political scientist Aníbal Romero. "People are tired of Chávez, and now they understand he can be defeated with their votes."

Chávez's narrow loss in Sunday's vote is the latest in a series of reverses he has suffered in recent weeks. At a summit meeting in Chile last month, Chávez was publicly upbraided by Spain's King Juan Carlos, who asked the garrulous Venezuelan leader to "shut up" as he verbally attacked an ex-president of Spain. And Chávez's attempts to mediate the release of hostages held by Colombia's largest guerrilla army were abruptly canceled by that nation's President Alvaro Uribe 10 days ago, after he learned that Chávez had contacted the commander of the Colombian armed forces. That said, the referendum's outcome in no way diminishes Chávez's grip on government. With five years still left in his term of office, he will continue to enjoy a near-monopoly on power with the help of a rubber-stamp legislature and a pliable judiciary packed with his supporters. And he has demonstrated time and again an impressive ability to recover from past failures, like his imprisonment for leading an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992 or his short-lived ouster from power in another aborted putsch five years ago.

The Venezuelan chief of state called on friend and foe alike to maintain calm and desist from the street clashes that marred the final days of campaigning prior to the vote on Sunday. But longtime Chávez watchers caution that a crackdown on his political opponents may be in the offing. Earlier this year he refused to renew the broadcasting license of a leading independent radio and television network, and Chávez repeatedly asserted in recent weeks that anyone who voted against the constitutional reforms would be guilty of treason and abetting the cause of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. "He is a military man by training, and it's hard to imagine Chávez adopting a more conciliatory position," says Alberto Barrera Tyszka, co-author of an acclaimed 2004 biography of the Venezuelan president that was translated into English earlier this year. "He thinks in terms of war: he has lost a battle and now he will return with a counteroffensive."

Chávez seemed to foreshadow such a response in today's press conference, when he dismissed any suggestion that his constitutional reform agenda was dead. "We couldn't do it, for now," he said, using language nearly identical to a famous televised address to the nation that he delivered after he was arrested for his role in the failed coup attempt of February 1992. A cursory review of his life story shows how often Chávez has benefited from rivals who underestimated him as a blustery buffoon. The leadership of Venezuela's victorious opposition would do well not to repeat that error.