By voting overwhelmingly in favour of a proposal to scrap term limits for all elected officials, the people of Venezuela have demonstrated their support for the leadership and vision of President Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian movement. Far from being a move to become “President for life,” as his opponents claimed, Mr. Chavez’s proposal aimed at nothing more radical than bringing Venezuela in line with democratic practice in most parts of the world. Term limits arguably represent an arbitrary restriction on the principle of democratic choice. As U.S. President Barack Obama famously observed last year, “I believe in one form of term limits. They’re called elections.” Thanks to the February 15 referendum result, the Venezuelan leader, who has already won two presidential terms and survived a recall vote by the opposition as well as an attempted coup d’etat, will now be eligible to run for office again in 2012. And the fact that 54 per cent of the electorate decided to give him the right to contest those elections suggests that most Venezuelans would like him to continue the project of social transformation he started in 1999.
Vilified by Washington and derided by Western observers as “populist,” Mr. Chavez’s policies have achieved something many liberal economists thought was impossible: a combination of high economic growth and a more equitable sharing of the benefits, including unprecedented acts of economic solidarity with poorer countries in the region. The key to Venezuela’s growth-with-equity model is not its oil but the manner in which the state has gone about utilising the wealth generated by the export of crude. Indeed, the growth rate has spurted to 13 per cent ever since the government wrested back control of the national oil company, PDVSA, from its pro-opposition management in 2003. Oil revenues have been poured into innovative literacy, public health, and poverty reduction programmes. Though the government’s ability to fund its welfare programmes will be hit by the sharp decline in world oil prices, the fact that most of the past decade’s growth has been in the non-oil sector provides some protection from the global recession. The reason the U.S. has so bitterly opposed Mr. Chavez and his project is that Venezuela provides a vibrant alternative to the failed economic policies Washington promoted in Latin America for over three decades. The U.S. is welcome to disagree with the Venezuelan leader. But now that he has demonstrated yet again the enthusiastic backing of the people, Mr. Chavez has every right to expect that his democratic mandate is respected.