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The Beginning of the End

Even before Sunday's stunning defeat of President Hugo Chavez's constitutional reform package in Venezuela, it was clear that his rule had reached a turning point. Win or lose, Venezuela's politics had already changed in fundamental ways. The tired narrative of the astute populist soaked in oil money, railing against discredited political parties, an inept opposition, and George W. Bush had already given way to a new scenario.

Last May, Chávez failed to renew the license of a popular TV station, prompting university students to mobilize against the regime's authoritarian tendencies. Chávez ignored these signs of mounting discontent and pushed ahead with “reforms” that amounted to little more than a flagrant power grab. Once again, the students took to the streets. In contrast to the traditional opposition, the students wisely did not demand Chávez's immediate ouster, instead focusing on safeguarding democratic norms. For the first time, disparate opposition sectors were joined by vocal and credible dissident chavistas, including a recent defense minister. Their support helped create the razor-thin loss for Chávez.

Polls had long showed that Chávez's reforms--especially his unabashed bid for indefinite reelection--were unpopular, even among his supporters. There were, however, two big questions. The first was whether those supporters would remain loyal to Chávez in spite of their reservations about his ambition to be president for life. The second was whether sectors of the opposition, who had foolishly boycotted legislative elections two years ago, would abstain again in an effort to delegitimize the process. In the end, enough Chávez supporters decided to stay home or vote “No” while enough of the traditional opposition rejected another self-defeating boycott.

Though polls showed the vote would be close, the defeat clearly shocked the ever-confident Chávez. Of course, oil prices nearing $100 a barrel can do wonders for the ego of any major oil producer. Chávez was convinced of his special understanding of the Venezuelan people and confident that everything was going swimmingly at home. But his unbridled appetite for power had created numerous soft spots. Spreading criminalty, corruption, inflation (at 20 percent, the highest in Latin America), and food shortages were among the deepening troubles that affected the very poor, Chávez's core constituency. They may have formed an emotional bond with their charismatic leader, but his government wasn't delivering basic services.

To be sure, Venezuela's economy has grown rapidly in the favorable energy market, allowing for a range of social programs that have no doubt benefited the poor. But Venezuelans have a powerful individualistic streak, one that favors a brand of socialism more akin to the New Deal than Chávez's authoritarian “21st Century Socialism.” Many also increasingly questioned Chávez's priorities. Excessive spending abroad in pursuit of his international agenda was hard to square with a commitment to alleviating poverty. Even as some Venezuelans enjoy the fruits of a consumer boom, price controls have created widespread shortages of basic goods. As Tal Cual editor (and former anti-Chávez candidate) Teodoro Petkoff remarked to me, “Venezuela has an abundance of whiskey and a scarcity of milk.” 

The loss, his first in nearly nine years in power, must have been tough for Chávez, but he shouldn't be underestimated. To his credit, he quickly acknowledged defeat, thereby fending off international opprobrium for a regime already under intense scrutiny. His claim to enhanced legitimacy--in a democracy, you win some and you lose some--might gain Chávez some favor with foreign governments troubled by his authoritarian moves. Most importantly, Chávez's existent power was not on the line in this vote. Despite emerging fissures, he still controls all key institions--the courts, the National Assembly, the armed forces--and will continue to do so. The Constitution of 1999, which Chávez designed, gives him enormous powers and allows him to remain in office until 2013. Time is on his side, and he has plenty of money to spend. 

Indeed, Chávez may have been gracious in defeat, but he certainly hasn't given up. He invoked the phrase that catapulted him to political stardom after his failed coup attempt in 1992, saying “We couldn't do it, for now.” It seems he will use other means--such as his broad decree powers or another constitutional assembly--to relentlessly pursue his plan of 21st Century Socialism, including indefinite reelection. Moderation or backtracking is out of character and should not be expected. Chávez is a consummate military man who thrives on combat and disdains the give-and-take of democratic politics. He is a shrewd political operator who tends to strike back quickly (rhetorically, at least) when he feels vulnerable. As in the past, he could well turn the loss to his advantage and emerge even stronger.

Whether he is able to recover will depend chiefly on the opposition's ability to capitalize on this opportunity and sustain its momentum. Though one opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, called on Tuesday for unity while urging Chávez to "work together" with the opposition, it remains an open question whether such diverse forces--university students, old and new parties, the Catholic church, disillusioned chavistas--can or will unite behind a coherent political strategy and effective leadership? Will they be able to patiently develop a new and viable set of policies that respond to the poor's real grievances? One change that seems more certain is that the victory on Sunday will make the opposition more likely to participate in future votes, and more inclined to pursue democratic channels to challenge Chávez. Venezuela does have a long democratic tradition, and student activists have gone on to play key political roles at other points in the country's history. Whether this generation can repeat this feat is hard to know.

Regardless, Chávez's loss reveals his domestic vulnerability and the limits of his aggressive petrodiplomacy. True, he will continue to seek to expand his influence in Latin America, even beyond such close allies as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. He will lose his ideal foil when Bush leaves office in January 2009, but he will continue his belligerent verbal assaults on the United States and will move to strengthen links with anti-US regimes like Iran. None of that is likely to change. After all, Chávez remains on a mission that is essentially about extending power, but after last Sunday's setback , it is unlikely that Chávez, for all his political talents, will succeed in reversing his regime's decay.

Michael Shifter is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

By Michael Shifter