Chavez's chances to extend term might be diminishing

With oil prices plummeting and homicide rates soaring, it might seem an odd time for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to ask voters to scrap limits on how long he can stay in power. After all, they rejected a similar measure a little more than a year ago, when the petro-dollars were pouring in. But Chavez learned from that defeat: He changed the proposal to cover all officials, not just the president. And he's counting on the self-interest of politicians across the country to get out the vote as Venezuelans go to the polls Sunday. A poll earlier this month by Felix Seijas of the Data Analysis Institute of Venezuela had the "yes" vote to end term limits leading "no" by 47.5 percent to 39.5 percent, but with 13 percent of probable voters undecided. In recent elections, undecideds have tended to swing against Chavez, according to Seijas' research. In a Thursday rally that closed his campaign, Chavez used typically incendiary rhetoric before thousands of supporters, threatening to take the fight to the streets if the "squalid ones dare to ignore our victory. ... I won't let you down, and don't you let me down on Sunday." Chavez, whose term ends in 2014, has framed the referendum as crucial to his socialist "Bolivarian Revolution" and programs for the poor. Opposition forces say Chavez is trying to perpetuate himself in office and that he has squandered the petro-dollar windfall. "Let's end hate and division," student Juan Pablo Lopez said during a rally Thursday in which thousands of students raised their hands in a symbolic oath to vote "no" as a means of upholding democracy and freedom. The opposition is taking heart in the decline of Chavez's approval ratings this year, reflecting the fact that living conditions have worsened steadily. Annual inflation exceeds 30 percent, the highest in Latin America, and Venezuela's homicides have tripled since 1998. The murder rate here in the capital, Caracas, is the third-highest among the world's major cities. Despite Chavez's promise to provide homes for all Venezuelans, the housing unit deficit has widened, causing rents to skyrocket in Caracas and other cities. Private-sector jobs have dried up along with investment in an economy where business and property owners live in fear of nationalization and squatters. But the fact that Chavez is leading in most polls is a testament to his core base of poor supporters, who benefit from the health care, education and other welfare programs he has instituted. It also reflects a poorly organized opposition that has no recognized leader. "He's convinced the poor that without him, all the benefits they now have will not exist," said Ricardo Sucre, a political consultant. "And the opposition has done nothing to counter that perception." If the opposition does eke out a victory, it will because many Venezuelans have grown weary of the nonstop antagonism between Chavez's supporters and the opposition, including the Chavistas' takeover last month of Caracas City Hall, which was won by an opposition mayoral candidate in November. Chavez also has gone into damage-control mode since the recent desecration of a synagogue here was blamed on the president's strident criticism of Israel after its Gaza offensive. Foreign Minister Ricardo Maduro visited a Caracas synagogue Thursday. The plunge in the price of oil that provides 55 percent of government revenue has caused visible stress in public finances, with the government falling behind of payments to various suppliers, including Colombian sugar producers and US oil-service firms. Chavez is trying to curtail Venezuelans' consumption of imported goods to reduce a treacherous budget deficit, while inflation is expected to keep rising in 2009. If oil prices, which have declined by nearly $100 a barrel since July, continue at current levels, Chavez will be forced to make severe cuts in his social programs, consultant Sucre said. "Chavez is still king," he said, "but he is less powerful than five or six years ago, and he is surrounded by problems."