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Hugo Chávez for life?

Venezuelans voted Sunday to scrap presidential term limits, opening the door for their leftist president to rule indefinitely.

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It was also a major setback for Chávez's opposition, who hung up signs reminding residents of high inflation and homicide rates, issues that hurt Chávez's party in local elections in November.

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Chávez had lost a similar attempt to remove term limits just 15 months ago, with a constitutional reform package that included an article for unlimited reelection of heads of state. His loss, his first since taking office in 1999, emboldened opposition political parties. But Sunday's victory – helped by heavy campaigning on state-funded media – shows his resilience.

Now the opposition fears that nothing will stand in his way. Chávez already controls the nation's institutions, from the congress to the courts.

"Until now he has showed a moderate authoritarianism, but indefinite rule opens the door to full dictatorship," says Elias Pino Iturrieta, a Venezuelan historian.

Launching his 2012 bid already?

Already Chávez used the referendum victory as an opportunity to launch a new presidential bid.

From the balcony of the presidential palace, Miraflores, he made it clear: "In 2012, there will be presidential elections, and unless God decides otherwise, unless the people decide otherwise, this soldier is already a candidate," he told his supporters.

Many seem unconcerned about the possibility of perpetual rule by Chávez, and say it's a sign of democracy and the people's will, not a dictator trying to sustain his grasp on power. "Let him be re-elected four, five times, then someone else can take over," says Ms. Mesones.

"Then maybe his daughter can become president," she jokes.

That scenario might be tough in today's climate: Chávez faces a worsening economy with the sudden drop in oil prices and high inflation that has disgruntled his most devout followers. In fact, observers say that he pushed to hold this referendum, which was cobbled together in just two months, before the economy worsened. "He moved now on this before the possibility of taking unpopular measures such as reducing spending on his social programs," says Mr. Pino Iturrieta.

A boost to fellow Latin leftists

Whether Chávez can hold on to power indefinitely is an open question, but his power today is clear, and could set a standard in the rest of the region.

Leaders across Latin America have been attempting to remove the barriers that keep them from running again for office.

Last month, Bolivians voted for a new constitution, which hands President Evo Morales the right to another presidential bid. Ecuadorians also voted into existence a new constitution in September that allows President Rafael Correa to try to stay in office until 2017. And President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua plans to propose a new amendment to allow him another consecutive presidential term.

Many see Chávez as the leader of the movement and say that his decisive victory will embolden leaders elsewhere. "This victory will stimulate them in their efforts in their own countries," says Sucre.