Chavez loss: a blip or a blow?

By Oscar Avila
Chicago Tribune

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez was conceding, his opponents rejoicing.

A day after the defeat of Chavez’s proposed referendum to expand presidential powers, the political landscape in Venezuela appeared transformed Monday.

But political leaders and analysts said it is too early to say whether the slim defeat of the referendum represents just a bump in the road for Chavez’s “socialism of the 21st century” or the awakening of a durable and vibrant opposition.

Even before the confetti was cleaned up, the students, business leaders, human-rights groups and ex-Chavistas who mobilized for Sunday’s vote were trying to keep a united front for future dealings with the president.

Opponents defeated the constitution plan 51 percent to 49 percent.

Addressing the nation after his first electoral defeat since winning office in 1998, Chavez congratulated opponents but said he would try to enact the components, piece by piece, through legal channels.

“We will keep pushing the social provisions contained inside,” he told a national television audience. ” I do not withdraw one comma of this proposal. This proposal is still alive.”

Some of the measures, such as letting the president seek re-election indefinitely, could resurface if Chavez wants to convene a constitutional assembly. Parties loyal to Chavez control the National Assembly, so other measures, such as strengthening grassroots councils, could be proposed as laws.

Retired Gen. Raul Baduel, a former defense minister and high-profile Chavez defector, said he could support a constitutional assembly to consider some of the president’s proposals but worried that the president might simply try to implement them by decree.

“I am issuing an alert to the country,” he said at a news conference. “We need to be on alert to the possibility of imposing these changes in an unconstitutional way.”

U.S. officials were pleased. “We felt that this referendum would make Chavez president for life, and that’s not ever a welcome development,” U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters in Singapore.

But Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said: “Rather than diminish Chavez, this defeat puts him in an attractive light. His gracious acceptance of defeat is one of his finest acts, real statesmanship. It’s certainly going to silence critics who say he is a nascent dictator.”