Venezuela's Chavez back to basics after vote win

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s referendum win puts him closer to his goal of ruling for another decade or more, but he has to tackle economic woes and violent crime before speeding up his socialist revolution.

As the tumbling price of oil knocks the bottom out of Venezuela’s coffers, Chavez will this year face a budget squeeze hurting his ability to finance popular health and education projects.

Chavez was jubilant on Sunday night after Venezuelans voted to lift term limits and allow him to run for re-election in 2012 but he avoided his customary promises of sweeping economic and political changes, at least for now.

Instead, he promised to focus this year on some of Venezuela’s more mundane problems, specifically rampant crime that claims thousands of lives a year and corrupt, inefficient institutions that waste millions of dollars.

“We have to fight the battle against crime with more intensity, with more effort and above all more results,” Chavez said in a victory speech from a balcony of his palace.

The uncharacteristically cautious speech suggested that Chavez knows he risks losing support if he does not quickly address issues that affect peoples daily lives. Combined with the dark economic outlook, that may slow the pace of reforms and his assault on private sector -- for a while at least.

Chavez decided against launching new attacks on his favorite rhetorical targets -- the “oligarchs” of the opposition and the U.S. “empire” -- and spent more time promising to do a better job of government.

“We must revise everything we have done in previous years, we have to start rectifying, adjusting, strengthening,” he said, although he also made it clear that any lull in his revolutionary zeal would be temporary. “If we reinforce what we have already done, then starting next year, we will be in a much better position to open new horizons.”

Although Chavez remains popular with the poor and won 54 percent support in Sunday’s referendum vote, polls show that even his supporters are weary of violent crime that killed 13,000 people in 2007, widespread corruption and a surge in the inflation rate to more than 30 percent last year.

Analysts say Chavez knows he must return to such issues -- but resisting more grandiose change is not easy for him.

In 2007, after his first attempt to scrap term limits was rejected by voters, Chavez promised to slow his reforms and pay attention to the same bread-and-butter issues.

Months later, however, he ordered a wave of takeovers in the cement, steel and finance industries and decreed a raft of laws boosting state control over the economy.


One area that may tempt him away from nitty-gritty government is the allure of gold -- before the referendum, he promised to nationalize some mining concessions currently held by foreign companies.

The need to wean Venezuela off food imports that petrodollars make cheap could encourage him to expropriate vast ranches the government considers to be idle, or cultivate new land in the country’s vast rain forests and plains.

Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez said this month the government planned to double the amount of farmed land in Venezuela within four years.

Chavez, 54, has used Venezuela’s oil wealth to open new health clinics and schools in many of its poorest neighborhoods, and abroad he aims to unite Latin America under his left-wing, anti-American vision.

But his government is inefficient. Corruption has stymied everything from highway construction to food distribution and almost endless party politics distracts ministers, mayors and government employees from their daily tasks.

Real progress on concrete issues may be tough unless Chavez changes his style.

Party militants spent much of last year stumping for Chavez’s governor and mayor candidates before elections in November. Several lost on complaints over poor administration.

The energy minister was a top level referendum campaign organizer even as the oil industry faces a slowdown and service companies complain of billions of dollars in unpaid debts.

Officials ranging from mayors to ministers are expected to sit through hours of Chavez speeches while their workloads pile up. Failing to show up for a party rally can result in Chavez scolding them on live television.

Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray