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Tough times ahead for Hugo Chavez

16 February 09 09:31 GMT

By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas

For those supporters who gathered outside the Miraflores presidential palace to hear President Hugo Chavez's victory address, there was extra feeling in their famous chant: "Uh-Ah, Chavez no se va" - "Chavez is going nowhere."

When President Chavez came out on the balcony to greet them, he was jubilant.

Without a constitutional change he would have had to stand down when his term expires in 2013; instead he had secured the right to stand again for office in the next elections due in 2012, and elections beyond.

"I am ready!" He told them. "With today's victory we start the third historical cycle of the Bolivarian revolution, from 2009 to 2019."

This has been a crucial victory for Venezuela's president. He had a lot riding on the outcome, both personally and politically.

He told voters that his destiny was in their hands and that he would respect their decision, win or lose.

In the end though, he won comfortably, further strengthening his argument that he has the backing of the majority of the Venezuelan people.

The opposition argued that the entire vote was unconstitutional, and unnecessary. Having defeated a similar reform in 2007 their campaign slogan was: "No means No!"

But it is clear that the majority of voters did not agree.

Rather, the government was able to persuade people that what President Chavez called a "small change" to the constitution was important for the country's future.

But what will happen when the smoke of the government's celebratory fireworks clears?

Venezuela is facing a series of economic and social problems which need urgent attention, one of which, the rise in violent crime, has been almost taboo for the Chavez government in recent years.

Government members have questioned the severity of the problem and raised doubts about the murder rate figures.

Social spending

But in his victory speech, Mr Chavez identified the civil security situation as one of his priorities for the rest of his current term in office.

He also promised to "strengthen" the social programmes known as misiones, which provide free healthcare and education in some of the country's poorest areas.

Many economists say though that the next few years will be key as to whether he can sustain his level of social spending.

With oil currently around $40 a barrel, Mr Chavez will not be able to depend on the huge oil revenues he enjoyed during the earlier part of last year.

Inflation in Venezuela is already the highest in Latin America at just under 30% a year and there are suggestions that the state-run energy company, PDVSA, is running at a severe loss.

While Venezuelans have shown with this vote that President Chavez still has more than enough support to win another presidential election, a lot can happen in four years and the road to the 2012 election may well be rocky.

But for now, none of that matters to the celebrating "Chavistas" - the president's core supporters.

They are just happy to have now secured the change which had eluded them so narrowly a year ago.

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