Monday, February 16, 2009

Venezuela's President Chavez Wins Referendum Vote

Venezuela's Chavez wins vote to allow re-election

Sun Feb 15, 2009 11:27pm EST
By Patrick Markey

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez won a referendum vote on Sunday that lets him stay in power for as long as he keeps beating his rivals in elections, and bolsters support for his socialist and anti-U.S. policies.

Chavez has already been in power for 10 years and the referendum vote helps clear the way for him to fulfill his declared goal of ruling for decades, although the global economic crisis will limit his ability to spend oil cash on nationalizing industries and extending his influence overseas.

Electoral authorities said 54 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment to remove limits on re-election and allow Chavez to stay in office until he is defeated at the ballot box. His current term ends in 2013.

"Long live the revolution," shouted Chavez, who was dressed in his signature red shirt and pumped his fist in the air standing on his palace balcony in front of thousands of flag-waving supporters.

But with the global crisis overshadowing his win, Chavez avoided announcing new policies -- as he usually does in victory speeches. Instead, he pledged to fight crime and corruption, which have weighed on his popularity, and consolidate his socialist programs this year.

"If we reinforce what we have already done, then starting next year, we will be in a much better position to open new horizons," he said.

His supporters chanted "Heh-ho, Chavez won't go."

The opposition accepted defeat, which was larger than expected after pre-vote polls gave Chavez only a slim lead.

"Today, Goliath won," opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said, in a biblical reference to what critics say is Chavez's overwhelming advantage in campaigns that he finances with state oil revenue to hold massive rallies and bus voters to polling stations.

The opposition movement says Chavez is an autocrat bent on sculpting Venezuela into a replica of communist Cuba, and it tried to capture discontent over violent crime, economic mismanagement and corruption.

But the government campaigned hard. An ex-paratrooper who once led a failed coup before winning power at the ballot box, Chavez has survived a putsch and two national strikes against his rule and has the loyalty of many poor Venezuelans.

"This can't stop, because the future of this country is in the president's hands," said Juan Carlos Carrillo, 40, a clothes vendor who voted in Caracas.


Chavez took office in 1999 as an underdog vowing to end corrupt elites, and is popular for spending on health clinics, schools and food hand-outs.

Calling former Cuban President Fidel Castro his political "father," Chavez has become the standard bearer for anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America, using his OPEC nation's oil wealth to help allies and counter U.S. influence in the region.

Castro sent him a message congratulating him for his "immeasurable" victory.

Chavez has strengthened ties with Russia and Iran, and allies in Ecuador and Bolivia have joined him in rewriting laws to extend their rule and increasing state control over the economy aiming to bring wealth to neglected poor majorities.

The victory on Sunday allows Chavez, 54, to put behind him a damaging vote loss in 2007, when his first attempt to remove constitutional restraints on his extended rule was defeated.

The result is a huge blow for Venezuela's opposition which had made gains in city and state elections last year after years of losing elections they often complained were unfair.

A popular but inexperienced and under-financed student movement had spearheaded the opposition to Chavez.

Investors worry that will burn through international reserves to maintain social programs despite falling revenue, and the value of Venezuela's currency and sovereign debt could fall further. Both have slumped in recent months on low oil prices and concerns that Chavez may remain in power for years.

"This victory solidifies President Chavez's already solid grip on power and all the key institutions in the country. It could also embolden the regime to deepen the distinctly interventionist and state-centric economic and political model," said Alberto Ramos, an economist at Goldman Sachs.

Chavez first stepped into the political spotlight in 1992 when as a young army officer he led a failed coup. Captured, he gave a brief television address calling on his comrades to lay down their arms, saying they had failed "for now."

After two years in prison, he entered politics, capturing the support of Venezuelans sick of discredited traditional parties in one of Latin America's oldest democracies.

(Editing by Saul Hudson and Kieran Murray)

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