The best clue as to where Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez is headed after his country's December 2 referendum can be found by closely examining his recent erratic behavior--though it is more difficult than ever to foresee the actions of this increasingly unpredictable, though incredibly resilient, political figure.

During the weeks leading up to the vote, Chávez picked fights with everyone he could find. First, he accused José María Aznar, the former Prime Minister of Spain, of being a "fascist serpent, worse than a human being." Then, when Juan Carlos I, the Spanish monarch, asked him to "shut up," Chávez had his ally, Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president, insult Spanish companies, forcing the king to abandon the room where all of this blustering was taking place, at the 17th 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.

Chávez also "froze" relations with his neighbor, Colombia, after its president, Alvaro Uribe, cut off a misguided mediation effort by Chávez, whereby the Caracas caudillo would attempt to free a large number of hostages held by the FARC, the main Colombian guerrilla group. After approving it initially, Uribe put an end to the effort when he discovered that Chávez was negotiating with the Colombian military. Chávez responded with his now customary insults--Uribe was nothing more than a "puppet" of the United States--and recalled his ambassador in Bogotá. Granted, Chávez had been offending other statesmen for years now: Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón of Mexico (he called the latter a "caballerito," or tin soldier, early this year, and questioned his electoral victory last year), Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, Alan García of Peru, the Brazilian Senate (which he has accused of being a Bush "lap-dog"), not to mention Bush himself.

We now know that behind all of this conduct lay Chávez's well-placed nervousness regarding the outcome of the referendum: He knew he was losing, and became more and more desperate over his imminent defeat. When it came--and probably by significantly more than the official, razor-thin, 1.4 percent margin--and when the Venezuelan military high command apparently "dissuaded" Chávez from trying to manipulate the results, he embarked upon an even more eccentric path. Although he initially sounded sensible and even gracious in defeat, he quickly began to lash out at his opponents, labeling their victory "full of shit," and threatening to move ahead with the legislative changes Venezuelan society had just rejected. His purported secret trip to Havana 48 hours after the vote probably did little to tranquilize him. There is every reason to believe his somewhat bipolar attitudes will continue in the next few days and weeks, at least until some type of normalcy returns to the Venezuelan political scene.

What kind of normalcy could this be? The first option would be for someone--Chávez himself, the military high command, his newly created opposition led by former defense Minister General Baduel--to draw the appropriate lessons from the referendum results. The poor abandoned Chávez in droves, not only abstaining, but going as far as voting against his perpetual re-election, for example, and "socialist" restrictions on private property. They did so chiefly because inflation, shortages, crime, and overall insecurity have reached such levels that their personal affection for and even devotion to Chávez no longer suffice. Rectifying economic policy, cutting runaway spending, adjusting an incredibly overvalued official exchange rate, and putting an end to international handouts would be a logical consequence of the election. This could be labeled "Chávez without chavismo," i.e. a major turnaround in policy, led by Chávez himself. Needless to say, while not unthinkable, this seems somewhat unlikely, to put it very modestly.

Another possibility, unfortunately more probable, is a radicalization of previous policies, or "chavismo plus." This would entail the implementation of the changes included in the referendum: eliminating the independence of the central bank, imposing the appointment of local officials just below elected ones, the six-hour working day, and many others of the sort. This would also imply an exacerbation of Venezuelan international activism, mainly in Latin America, but also in regard to Iran. This road would lead to greater tensions with Chávez's neighbors, with Washington, Spain, and Western Europe, and most importantly, with his domestic opposition: the students, the Church, the Baduel faction of the military, and splinter groups from his own party. The "deepening of the revolutionary process," as this is being called, would inevitably provoke some type of authoritarian crackdown and further economic instability

The last option, perhaps less remote in the mid-term than in the near future, is a rerun of what occurred the weekend of the elections. According to most accounts, both Baduel and the military high command forced Chávez to accept his defeat under certain conditions, and threatened to remove him if he refused. One can easily contemplate a scenario whereby many chavistas would prefer to remain in power, pursue both the socialist and populist policies of the past few years, continue to considerably enrich themselves, and maintain more independence from Washington than in the past, but without the endless domestic and foreign conflicts generated by their current leader's personality and excesses.

They might prefer to follow the path of what many are calling "chavismo without Chávez." This course is all the more likely if it turns out that the Caracas caudillo simply cannot sit still or remain silent. The opposition's victory on December 2 ushered in a new stage in Venezuelan--and Latin American--politics. But it did not determine where things will head. Much will depend on what the Venezuelan people decide--but part of the likely upheavals will also stem from what the rest of the region, Europe, and the United States do. For the moment, they do not seem to have a clue about what to do with Chávez.

JORGE CASTANEDA, a former foreign minister of Mexico, is now Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University.

By Jorge Castañeda