But now the polemical populist says he needs at least 10 more years – to deepen the socialist project that his administration says is bringing power to the poor for the first time in history.
So today Venezuelans will head to the polls to vote on a referendum to decide whether to allow him to run indefinitely for office.
This is not the first time that the removal of term limits has been put to voters here.
At the end of 2007, President Chávez attempted to reform the constitution, which would have allowed him to re-seek the presidency after his current term ends in 2013. That effort failed.
His critics say Sunday’s vote is just another attempt to concentrate power in the hands of a man whose political party already controls the nation’s most influential institutions, including the military, courts, and congress.
His supporters say this is democracy at work: if Chávez is to remain in power forever, they say, it is because voters continue to elect him to the office.
Whatever the outcome, the vote will shape the contours of the Venezuelan political landscape for years to come and will influence the staying power of Chávez’s socialist “revolution” here and in other Latin American countries.
“There is a perception here in Venezuela, on both sides, that this process of change is totally dependent on Chávez,” says Steve Ellner, a Venezuela-based political analyst and author of “Rethinking Venezuelan Politics.” “There is a lot at stake for both.”
The current constitution of 1999 does not allow elected officials to serve more than two consecutive terms. Sunday’s referendum will ask voters whether the nation should do away with such term limits for the head of state and other officials.
According to the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis, 51.5 percent of those surveyed in January said that they sided with the referendum. That gives Chávez a slight lead but it’s close enough that the outcome is expected to depend on which side can mobilize the most voters.
Both sides have been campaigning hard. In downtown Caracas, multi-colored signs bearing the words “Si,” paper the lampposts. Street corners are filled with voters handing out “Si” and “No” fliers. Students who oppose the administration’s project, and who played a critical role in the defeat of the 2007 constitution, have organized new rallies, as have Chávez supporters.
Overall the president remains extremely popular. Since taking office in 1999, Chávez has won almost every election held – more than a dozen. The poor comprise an important part of his base. Poverty, according to government figures, has been cut in half in the past five years. Unemployment has also fallen, and his social programs, called missions, have brought healthcare and education to the most marginalized neighborhoods.
“Living standards are better, there is more job security, things are better all around,” says Guillermo Silvestre, who works in the interior ministry and says he is voting “yes” because the country needs Chávez to continue with the nation’s transformation. “He is going to win.”
But this referendum comes at the heels of two significant setbacks. The first was the failed constitution, which would have included changes to 69 of 350 articles, touching on everything from funding for community councils to shorter work days, as well as an article to allow the indefinite re-election of heads of state. It was narrowly defeated – 51 percent voted against it; 49 percent in favor.
Last year, although Chávez’s socialist political party, the PSUV, earned the majority of seats in mayoral and gubernatorial elections, his political allies lost key ground, including the Caracas mayor’s post.
Some voters say they are discouraged by high crime rates – Caracas is one of the most violent cities in Latin America – and an inflation rate above 30 percent. They say that Chávez cares more about showboating on the world stage than tackling the domestic problems at home.
“This is complete abuse of power,” says Luisa Priego, a storeowner in Caracas who has been selling undergarments, pajamas, and bathing suits for nearly 30 years. “He already tried this and lost. Why is he trying again? … He spends his time developing ties with Cuba, a country of hungry people, while he is running this country to the ground.”
Most agree that more economic problems loom, which could translate into future political woes. His social missions, for example, depend in large part on oil revenue. Although the government has promised to not cut spending to the missions, the price of oil has plummeted to less than $40 a barrel – after a peak of $147 last July.
It is precisely because of the economic crisis that many say he is holding the referendum now. “They have to move now before the complex economic crisis in Venezuela forces him to take unpopular measures,” says Elsa Cardozo, a professor of international relations at Venezuela’s Metropolitan University in Caracas.
If Chávez loses, it will certainly embolden his opposition – as they’ll view it as three consecutive victories in a row and a downward slide that allows them their first meaningful chance to expect a post-Chávez era. But no one expects chavismo, as his movement is called, to suddenly disappear. Chávez has inspired cadres of Venezuelans who are participating in society for the first time.
But Mr. Silvestre’s opinion, that the transformation is only guaranteed with the personality of Chávez at the helm, is shared by political analysts as well. What is the staying power of chavismo in a post-Chávez era?
For now, says Mr. Ellner, he has no clear political successor. “Chávez is overshadowing all other political leaders within the political movement,” he says.