Steve Chapman

The changes would not only repeal the two-term limit on his office, allowing him to serve for life, but also transfer virtually all power to one person: the president. He would gain the authority to supersede local governments on a whim, declare a state of emergency anytime it suits him and seize farms and processing plants if he deems it necessary for "food security."

The question is not what Chavez he will be able to do if this plan passes. The question is what he will not be able to do -- and the answer is, not much.

Still, Chavez apparently remains popular among the poor, who may be unaware of the economic stagnation generally produced by this brand of socialism. In following the example of Cuba, Chavez is doing something exceptionally novel: modeling his economy on one far poorer than his own. It's as though General Motors, dissatisfied with its fortunes, were to embrace the business plan previously used by American Motors.

But Chavez's "reform" plan is expected to pass anyway. One reason is that it includes such enticements as a new six-hour workday and expanded social security benefits. Other reasons: Government control of the media makes it hard for opponents to get their message out, and some dissenters are boycotting because they see the plebiscite as rigged against them.

Still, supporters of pluralistic, constitutional democracy have not given up. University students have marched in opposition to the proposals, despite violence from pro-Chavez forces and jeers from the president, who calls them "fascists" and "rich bourgeois brats." But as Douglas Cassel of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame put it in a recent radio commentary, "Show me a revolution opposed by university students en masse, and I'll show you a phony revolution."

A phony revolution may nonetheless be a durable one. If the Venezuelans who go to the polls next month give Chavez what he wants, they are likely to discover a paradox: They can bring about dictatorship through democracy, but not the reverse.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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