Hugo Chavez, president for life?

Marketplace Staff Nov 30, 2007

Hugo Chavez, president for life?

Marketplace Staff Nov 30, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: Oil continues to work its way back off $100 a barrel — $88.71 was the close in New York. That’s down more than 2 bucks today, $11 in the past week or so.

I mention that as a way to set up the news coming out of Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez runs the country that’s the fourth largest importer of crude to the United States. And he wants to do that for a whole lot longer. Venezuelans go to the polls Sunday to vote on more than 69 constitutional amendments. The most controversial of them would allow for Chavez to be re-elected indefinitely. To make that go down just a little bit easier, Chavez has thrown in a couple of other amendments aimed at spreading that oil wealth to the poor. From the Americas Desk at WLRN in Miami, Marketplace’s Dan Grech reports.

Dan Grech: One amendment would offer state pensions to homemakers, street vendors and maids. Another would shift funds to grass-root communal councils. And the most eagerly awaited change? The workday would be cut to six hours by law.

Gustavo Taibel sells fish from a roadside stand in Petare, a poor slum in the capital city of Caracas.
He plans to vote yes on Sunday.

GUSTAVO TAIBEL [TRANSLATION]: I think a shorter workday is a good thing. There are people that kill themselves working 10 or 11 hours a day at minimum wage.

The government says shaving off two work hours would create 137,000 new jobs and lead to lower unemployment. Economists, on the other hand, say workers would become less productive and businesses less competitive globally.

Michael Shifter is with the Inter American Dialogue, a think tank. He says Chavez added these pocketbook incentives after early polls showed many Venezuelans oppose the idea of president for life.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: And so he needed to introduce what are called caramelos in Spanish, sweeteners, to make the reform package more acceptable.

Other proposals would eliminate the autonomy of the Central Bank, give Chavez direct control of foreign reserves and raise the bar for a recall referendum. That’s driven former military allies, church officials and students like these to protest the reforms.

Still, polls show that Chavez’s caramelos, and a well-funded vote-yes campaign with catchy songs, have worked. Sunday’s vote is now too close to call.

Susan Kaufman Purcell is with the University of Miami. She says the business community is particularly alarmed by an amendment that would give Chavez greater power to confiscate property. It also happens to resonate with people stuck in the slums.

SUSAN KAUFMAN PURCELL: From a poor person’s perspective, anything that takes away private property from those who have it, that’s a good thing.

This class divide has helped Chavez win five nationwide votes since 1999. And he’s hoping it’ll push him over the top again on Sunday.

I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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