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Venezuela Reins in, Doesn't Reject, Hugo Chávez

By Jennifer McCoy

Jennifer McCoy, Ph.D., is director of the Carter Center's Americas Program.

Voters in Venezuela have sent a clear message to their president: Slow down.

Hugo Chávez's own supporters refused to do what he asked — cast their vote on the constitutional reforms last week as if it were a personal loyalty test to him. In fact, most probably do remain loyal to him, but not to his frenzied drive to enact far-reaching reforms that would concentrate extraordinary power in his hands and fundamentally change the Venezuelan polity and economy.

At the same time, Chávez has taken on the mantle of challenging U.S. dominance in the hemisphere and the world, building alliances with other countries unfriendly to the United States and creating concerns in Washington. While Fidel Castro enjoyed an almost mythical reputation as a David surviving nearly five decades of Goliath's wrath, Chávez has adeptly used petroleum revenue and his rhetorical skills to emerge as the current leader of anti-U.S. sentiment in the hemisphere.

Will last week's referendum affect his reputation and influence inside and outside the country?

This was Chávez's first electoral defeat in his nine years in office. The fact that he accepted the results, and that the electoral authority actually reported a loss, surprised many.

Chávez correctly portrayed himself as a democrat in conceding defeat, and international accolades poured in. Chávez's democratic legitimacy, in fact, rests primarily on his frequent elections and referendums (a dozen in nine years).

Losing one vote by a narrow margin will not diminish his reputation as a charismatic man of the people, nor his self-appointed position as champion of the poor and challenger to the United States. However, whether he can transform his image into a democrat with a more moderated vision for creating a society with social equity and empowered citizens will depend on how well he learns the lessons from last week's vote.

The first lesson for Chávez is that he needs to broaden his circle of advisers and encourage debate among them. The closed system of information within the presidential palace means that advisers may be afraid to bring bad news to the leader, and that healthy debate is stifled, leading to rigidity, out-of-touchness and surprise results, as in this recent vote.

The second lesson for the president is that he has accomplished one of his goals — to bring visibility to "invisible" citizens. Many previously marginalized Venezuelans now seem to feel empowered and represented by the president, so empowered that many refused to support his reforms.

But they also want concrete results — to lower the 18 percent inflation rate, end shortages of basic goods and control corruption and high levels of crime. Beyond vague concepts of 21st century socialism, the average Venezuelan is demanding increasing government efficiency and more public-private sector collaboration.

The third lesson is the change in the opposition. Both dissident chavistas and longer-term political opponents acted responsible after their victory. They did not gloat, but instead asked for dialogue and offered to support some of his more popular proposals, such as social security for self-employed workers. The president has a golden opportunity at this moment to test the opposition's sincerity by accepting their offers rather than denigrating them.

Chávez's first electoral loss leaves him far from defeated. The opposition did not gain many new voters; instead, Chávez lost 40 percent of his voters, compared with the 2006 presidential election. But he still commands significant popular support, control over the main national institutions and extraordinary petroleum revenue, five more years in office and six more months of legislative-decree power. He will continue to try through all of these routes to implement his agenda, but he will be more successful if he listens more to his citizens.

The final lesson from Sunday's vote is for international actors. We should not underestimate the capacity of the Venezuelan people to provide some constraints on their government, even when institutional checks and balances are practically nonexistent. As long as Chávez follows the electoral path, the Venezuelan people will determine how far they will support his ideas, and when it is time to put on the brakes.

Read more about the Carter Center's work in Venezuela

3 December 2007: Carter Center: Statement on Venezuela Referendum (English and Spanish)
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