Hugo Chávez for President ... Now and Forever?

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Fernando Llano / AP

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has given his rubber-stamp National Assembly the green light to fashion yet another constitutional referendum on whether presidential term limits should be eliminated in the western hemisphere's largest oil producer. "We're going to achieve it," the left-wing Chávez declared to thousands of supporters in Caracas on Sunday. "We're going to demonstrate who rules in Venezuela. If God gives me life and health, I will be with you until 2021" — the bicentennial of Venezuela's independence from Spain. "Uh-ah, Chávez no se va," he sang: "Chávez isn't leaving."

The incoming Obama Administration — and who knows how many U.S. Administrations after Obama's — may need to prepare for lifetime re-election for Chávez, because this time he could very well get it. And no matter how passionately the anti-U.S. firebrand keeps working to thwart Washington's interests in the hemisphere, there is very little Washington can do about it, since the U.S. gets almost 15% of its oil imports from Venezuela.

Chávez most recently tried to nix term limits in a constitutional plebiscite last year, but in a stunning rebuke, Venezuelans voted down the idea. Few, however, really believed the radical Chávez, whose second and final six-year term ends in February 2013, would let the matter die there. Most assumed he would wait for the outcome of last week's regional elections. He was hoping his United Socialist Party (PSUV) would crush Venezuela's dysfunctional opposition so badly that he'd meet little resistance raising the term-limits question again.

That wasn't quite the result Chávez got. The PSUV did win 17 of 22 state governorships, the lion's share of mayoral posts and 53% of the total vote, proving that Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution are still the nation's most potent political force. But el comandante's celebration was blunted by the fact that the opposition won governor seats in three of the most populous states, including Zulia, the nation's oil powerhouse, and Carabobo, an important automobile producer. (Earlier last month, Chávez had threatened to send in tanks if his opponents took Carabobo.) The opposition also picked up the mayoralty of the capital, Caracas, Venezuela's largest city.

On Sunday, Chávez called the opposition victors "fascists" and made it clear he wasn't deterred by his mixed victory. In fact, say many analysts, the opposition's successes probably made him more determined to have Venezuelan voters revisit the term-limits issue as soon as possible. The price of oil, the fount of his revolutionary largesse, is in steep decline; inflation is topping 30%; and Chávez will have a harder time whipping up anti-yanqui< fervor among his supporters now that the more liberal Barack Obama is about to replace Chávez's conservative archenemy, George W. Bush. "Chávez is envisioning tougher times ahead," says John Walsh, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, an independent think tank. "In order to gin up his base, he decided he better do this now rather than later, while he can still muster a majority of the vote. He knows that time may not be on his side."

Walsh adds that Chávez also stands a better chance of winning a new term-limits referendum, which could take place as early as the middle of next year, precisely because he stands a better chance of galvanizing that base than he did last year. "A lot of Chavistas stayed home in 2007 because they knew no matter the outcome, Chávez would still be President the next morning," says Walsh. "This time, they'll feel more urgency, a more heightened sense that their political project is at risk. That will make it very close."

If Chávez remains ineligible to run in the 2012 election, his long-term socialist project will be at risk, mostly because he has few if any viable successors. In recent years he's had to fend off dissidents within his party and coalition, and as a result, he's been reluctant to promote anyone else to the national stage. The Chavista rebels complain that the theatrics of revolution have superseded the obligations of governing in Venezuela. That concern is a big reason why the PSUV lost last week in large urban centers like Caracas and Maracaibo. In those areas, Chávez, to his credit, has spent billions on long-overdue social projects. But violent crime has nonetheless reached horrific levels, basic services like trash collection seem to have collapsed, and corruption is growing. Chávez, whose brother Adan defeated a breakaway Chavista candidate last week for the governorship of Chávez's home state of Barinas, insisted Sunday there is "no Chavista dissidence" and that "those who betray Chávez die politically."

Chávez's critics, of course, fear that if he's allowed indefinite re-election, he'll simply morph into another Fidel Castro. Despite — or because of — the Cuban leader's longevity in power (or the record of other would-be rulers-for-life), Latin Americans look askance at lifetime presidencies. That's why even voters next door in Colombia look set to deny their remarkably popular conservative President, Alvaro Uribe, a third term when his second expires in 2010. Chávez does have an authoritarian streak and is indeed a gushing admirer of Castro, and with the legislature and judiciary firmly under Chávez's control, Venezuela's democratic institutions are hardly a showcase.

Then again, Chávez is hardly a dictator. Venezuelans can still criticize him in the media, and ever since he was elected in 1998 (and in a special 2000 election and again in 2006), he's followed democratic procedure and conceded defeat, however irascibly, when it's come. Chávez's backers insist that even if term limits are eliminated, Venezuela's opposition, unlike Cuba's, can still dethrone him.

Which means that if the opposition can't defeat Chávez in the coming referendum, it will have to figure out how to do it in 2012. Right now no one appears to be up to the task, largely because Chávez's foes spent so many years fecklessly plotting his overthrow by strikes and coups instead of ballots; they are still playing catch-up. Not that Chávez has always played fair: his government, for example, ruled that scores of opposition candidates were ineligible to run in last week's contests because of murky corruption charges. (And he himself was once willing to try extraconstitutional means to gain power: in 1992, as a paratrooper lieutenant colonel, he tried to stage a military coup.) To ensure the opposition's weakness, Chávez has loudly and rather petulantly declared that he'll use his ubiquitous levers of power to make the work of the new opposition governors and mayors especially difficult.

But Chávez also faces the very real risk of voter fatigue. If a referendum is held next year, it will be the third hard-fought election Venezuelans have been asked to engage in in as many years. Said opposition leader Manuel Rosales, the Maracaibo mayor-elect whom Chávez has recently threatened to imprison for allegedly plotting to assassinate him: "It's an insult to people that at this time we're already talking about a new electoral campaign, when they're overwhelmed by far more pressing problems." Maybe so, but Chávez "lives to be on the offensive," says Walsh. "Demonizing the opposition, polarizing the country is the way he's succeeded up to now." Ten years after he took power, Chávez is about to find out if that's still a strategy that can keep him successful for another decade ... or two, or three.

— With reporting by Virginia Lopez / Caracas