Venezuelan voters say no to Chavez

Referendum defeat follows his mistakes

December 04, 2007|By McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's stunning loss in a constitutional referendum Sunday has dealt a severe and possibly fatal blow to his ambitions to spread his political ideology and succeed Fidel Castro as the leader of Latin America's anti-American left, analysts and U.S. officials said yesterday.

Few analysts were willing to bet that Chavez won't recover and try again to strengthen his grip on power in Venezuela. But the rejection of his proposed constitutional changes hurt Chavez because it came on top of a string of international gaffes and missteps that have made him look erratic and even buffoonish.

"The specter of Hugo Chavez dominating the Western Hemisphere was not particularly attractive" to most Latin Americans, said Riordan Roett, a Latin America expert at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. "One finds that the Latin Americans don't like being tarred with the image of Hugo Chavez."

A recent 18-country poll by the Chile-based Latinobarometro polling organization identified Chavez as one of the least-popular leaders in Latin America. Only Castro was less popular.

At home, Chavez is facing rising inflation and a scarcity of many basic goods.

All of which is good news for U.S. officials, who want to blunt Chavez's influence but who are fearful of helping him by acting too openly against him.

"The question we're wrestling is whether a tipping point has been reached now with the kind of antics we've seen by Chavez of late," said a senior U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the situation publicly.

Apart from Castro, no recent Latin American leader has had such an active international agenda as Chavez.

He has lashed out against the U.S. "empire" at every turn and has tried to parlay Venezuela's oil wealth into political influence. He's signed deals with countries to provide oil at favorable prices, invested heavily in Argentina's national debt and has overtly backed political allies in Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador.

Chavez began alienating the international community in the spring of last year, when he called Peruvian presidential candidate Alan Garcia, a former president, a thief. Garcia went on to defeat a pro-Chavez candidate.

In September of last year, Chavez horrified Latin American diplomats when he appeared before the United Nations General Assembly and denounced Bush as a "devil" and said the podium still smelled of sulfur from Bush's recent appearance. Chavez was widely denounced, and the speech probably cost Venezuela key votes in its failed quest to secure a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Still popular among Venezuela's poor, Chavez bounced back and easily won re-election in December.

But his international image took another beating when he revoked the broadcast license of opposition station RCTV, arguing that it had backed a 2002 coup against him.

The move sparked protests by students, who formed the backbone of the campaign for a "no" vote in Sunday's balloting, and unleashed another wave of international condemnations, including by the senates of Chile, Brazil and the United States.

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