When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, he invoked 19th-century Latin American hero Simón Bolívar, vowing to combat poverty and secure economic independence. Ten years later, Chávez is refusing to give up control as he reaches the end of his two-term limit. Ironically, his opposition has turned to Bolívar’s teachings to make its case. “Nothing is as dangerous as letting the same citizen remain in power for a long time,” reads the 1819 quotation in their flyers.
This Sunday, there will be a referendum on whether Chávez can run for re-election in 2012. Fearing the outcome, hundreds of thousands of protesters are flooding the streets to oppose yet another effort by their president to cling to power. The socialist leader’s supporters, meanwhile, are growing more militant, throwing tear gas canisters at the homes of detractors.
The opposition is angry because Chávez has already tried—and failed—to eliminate the two-term limit on elected officials. In 2007, he was narrowly defeated by a few thousand votes. Still, the president says he needs more time to complete his “Bolivarian Revolution,” remarking in a recent speech: “I should stay at the helm for at least 10 more years.”
But after a decade of his rule, surging inflation and a rise in violent crime have stoked discontent. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela suffered a blow in elections last November, losing five states and the Caracas mayoralty to the opposition. Nevertheless, according to recent polls, Chávez has a slight edge going into the upcoming referendum.
Regardless of the outcome, reaction will be fierce. The head of a pro-Chávez group—which has assumed responsibility for many of the tear gas attacks—has already vowed “war” if the president doesn’t win.