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Chavez – 10 years in power as an international maverick

By Veronica Sardon, DPA,

Buenos Aires : Controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will celebrate 10 years in power Monday and has made it clear that he has no plans to leave anytime soon.

Chavez, who became president Feb 2, 1999, is now trying to cling on to power for unlimited years. On Feb 15, Venezuela is to hold a constitutional referendum which would abolish term limits and enable the leftist leader to seek unlimited re-election.

Under the present constitution, Chavez’s second term ends in February 2013 without the chance of re-election.

Through the years, Chavez has grabbed headlines as he reshaped his country’s political and social institutions, while also carving out a visible presence in the international arena.

Outspoken and unorthodox, the 54-year-old leader has established a reputation as a political maverick. In Latin America, he has proved to be an inspiration with his “21st century socialism”, closely followed by his counterparts Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

The left-wing populist Chavez’s impact on the world stage has been both memorable and contentious. In 2006, he stood before the United Nations General Assembly in New York and said it smelled like sulphur because then US president George W. Bush – whom Chavez called “the devil” – had stood in the same spot a day earlier.

In 2007, his comments led Spain’s low-profile King Juan Carlos to disregard protocol and ask Chavez to “shut up”, during an Iberian-American summit in Santiago.

Chavez had strong clashes with the Bush administration – frequently referring to the United States as the empire – and aligned his government against what he called US neoliberalism and colonialism. This brought Caracas close to Iran, Russia and Cuba.

As far as relations with the US go, Chavez has asked his followers “not to get over excited” about US President Barack Obama, the new leader of what he called the “North American empire”.

“We are glad that this president who filled the world with terror and violence is leaving government. Goodbye, Mr. Bush,” he said on Jan 20, the day Obama was sworn into office.

“Let us hope that the arrival of a new president means a change for the freedom of the peoples,” he said.

After a landslide election victory in 1999, Chavez – who led a failed military coup in 1992 – has ridden a wave of huge popularity, particularly among Venezuela’s poor. But the opposition has long accused him of having a “dictatorial” style of governance.

Chavez reconfigured the country’s political system with a new constitution, pushed through immediately after his election, which increased the presidential term from five to six years.

In 2007, he suffered his only upset at the ballot after narrowly losing a referendum on a draft of measures, including reforms to allow his continuous re-election.

Next month Venezuela will to hold another constitutional referendum, in which Chavez will once again seek an amendment permitting indefinite re-elections.

Chavez rationalizes that he is not clinging to power for selfish reasons but is answering the needs of the Venezuelan people and redistributing the country’s resources for the benefit of its impoverished citizens.

He has stayed in power in a hostile setting characteristic of a highly-polarized country.

Chavez survived a coup that actually ousted him from power for a few hours in 2002, as well as an economically devastating two-month oil strike in 2002-2003 that forced the oil-rich country to import petrol. He also faced up to a recall referendum in 2004, which he overwhelmingly won.

Seeking to capitalize on the tensions, Chavez opponents organised a recall vote, getting 20 percent of the Venezuelan electorate to sign petitions. However, the president’s mandate could not be revoked.

But, times are changing. The opposition is less divided and has adopted a more practical approach to politics. Chavez also faces the problems of falling oil prices and the soaring cost of food and other necessities.

It is still not clear whether Chavez will sweep the referendum, but analysts expect a close vote.

Even if his proposed reform does not pass, Chavez will remain in power until 2013. The coming years – with a global economic crisis abroad and a tighter electoral base at home – are likely to offer the Venezuelan a less polarized world in which he will have to redefine a place for himself.