This story has been updated.
Gunmen have started dumping bodies down the hillside garbage chute in La Silsa. The slum, one of the poorest that ring Caracas, was crime-ridden when I was a teacher there in the 1980s. But residents like housewife Gladys Rodríguez tell me the barrio has become a killing field over the past few years, and that corpses are sometimes found atop the rubbish pile below her street. “That’s what things have come to,” says Rodríguez, 36. “How do you hide your kids from that”
You can’t, which is why Rodríguez says she’s conflicted about Venezuela’s referendum on Feb. 15, over whether to eliminate presidential term limits. President Hugo Chavez wants to amend the constitution so that he can run for a third six-year term in 2012. On the hustings, the former paratrooper insists that only if he stays in Miraflores, the presidential palace, will “the people stay in power.” He’s taken to ending his rallies with a campaign slogan that anticipates the vote’s outcome: “Oo-ah, Chávez no se va!” Chávez isn’t leaving!
Most residents of La Silsa hope Chávez is right. Like other poor Venezuelans, they’re grateful for the poverty-reduction programs and medical clinics Chávez has lavished on barrios like theirs. The potable water, power lines, subsidized grocery stores, community councils that give average people more political say they had none of that 20 years ago. Since Chávez’s leftist revolution began in 1999, though, Venezuela’s oil wealth has been redirected into populist spending programs that keep the poor on side and Chávez in power.
Can it last Poor Venezuelans know from experience the pain of the bust that follows a boom, and with oil hovering around $40 a barrel some of Chávez’s socialist agenda will surely face cuts after the referendum. Many people have begun asking why the radical who so boldly stands up to the U.S. can’t confront the violent crime that plagues the country and leaves scores dead each weekend. “I know in my heart that life is better here than it was 10 years ago,” says Tobías Caravallo, 42, who owns an electronics repair shop in La Silsa and is a devoted Chavista. But “we need more police on the streets. Better police.”
Polls suggest that Chávez has a narrow lead. Places such as La Silsa are likely to decide the outcome though in a previous plebiscite, in 2007, his supporters failed to turn out in big enough numbers and voters rejected scrapping term limits, among other proposals. But even if Chávez fails a second time, few doubt he’ll try again before 2012. Fans say he needs to complete his revolutionary goals. “He’s leading a transformation of our society,” says Chávez’s former ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez. “And we should let voters let him continue it.” Foes, who have had violent, tear gas-soaked clashes with police during marches for the no vote in the past few weeks, say Chávez has an egomaniacal obsession with being President for life. “This isn’t a constitutional amendment,” says opposition leader Leopoldo López. “It’s a constitutional violation.”
However you see it, ending term limits seems increasingly popular around Latin America. Chávez remains the standard-bearer of the region’s resurgent left; and after his first attempt to change the constitution, leftist Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador had their own term limits relaxed by popular vote. Colombia’s conservative President, Alvaro Uribe, won’t deny that he hopes to engineer a constitutional fix letting him seek a third term when his second mandate ends next year. The trend has democracy watchdogs fretful about a return of the Latin caudillo.