What Chávez Win Means for Latin American Democracy

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Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez celebrates his victory on Feb. 15, 2009, on a referendum on constitutional changes that will allow him to seek re-election without limits

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Chávez's foes fear that he intends to set up a democratically elected version of Fidel Castro's autocratic rule over Cuba. His fans counter that some democratic countries such as France allow their leaders to be re-elected indefinitely. But analysts say France has more developed political institutions that exert stronger checks and balances on chief executives. That's not always the case in Latin America, argues Walsh, who says Chavistas "are deluded if they think those institutions are working as they should right now in in Venezuela." (See pictures of Castro in the jungle.)

Walsh says Chávez already has inordinate control over the nation's legislative and judicial branches. If, as most expect, Chávez moves now to radicalize his socialist project, he could enervate them even more. Chávez's former ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez, disagrees: "Chávez has had every opportunity in the world the past 10 years to become a dictator, and he hasn't done it," he says. "Instead he's created a real democracy here for a change, and under him those institutions will continue to strengthen."

There has yet to be any reaction from the State Department but, before the vote, the State said simply that the referendum was an internal matter for the Venezuelans to decide upon. Despite declaring during his campaign last year that he'd be willing to meet with Chávez, U.S. President Barack Obama in a recent interview was critical of the Venezuelan and his stridently anti-U.S. stance. Washington will now watch to see if Chávez, who controls the western hemisphere's largest oil reserves, can retain his boisterous influence in the Americas — and survive politically at home — if oil prices don't rebound and the economy continues to slide. "The futures markets seem to think oil prices will rise soon enough that Chávez won't have to dip into his foreign reserves, which are about 25% of Venezuela's GDP," says Mark Weisbrot, head of the Center for Economic Policy and Research in Washington. "So I don't think Chávez will have too big a problem getting through the crisis." But other economists say Chávez won't be able to sustain the social largesse at home and petro-diplomacy abroad that have made him the standard bearer of Latin America's resurgent left.

Chávez could also lose political steam at home if Obama doesn't provide him with a convenient U.S. foil for his fiery nationalistic rhetoric, as President George W. Bush so often did. Chávez recently remarked that Obama seemed to have the "same stench" as Bush, but over the weekend said he'd be willing to meet with the new U.S. leader before the Summit of the Americas in April in Trinidad. Obama has already invited Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to the White House next month, a sign that he'd prefer to deal with a more moderate Latin leftist. The only problem is that Lula's second and final term ends next year. Chávez now stands to be around quite a bit longer.

With reporting by Virginia Lopez / Caracas

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Read a recent TIME magazine story on Chávez.

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