CARACAS // Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has won a referendum vote that lets him stay in power for as long as he keeps beating his rivals in elections, and bolsters support for his socialist and anti-US policies. Mr Chavez has already been in power for 10 years and the referendum vote helps clear the way for him to fulfil his declared goal of ruling for decades, although the global economic crisis will limit his ability to spend oil cash on nationalising industries and extending his influence overseas. Electoral authorities said 54 per cent of voters approved the constitutional amendment to remove limits on re-election and allow Mr Chavez to stay in office until he is defeated at the ballot box. His current term ends in 2013. "Long live the revolution," shouted Mr Chavez, who was dressed in his signature red shirt and pumped his fist in the air standing on his palace balcony in front of thousands of flag-waving supporters.
But with the global crisis overshadowing his win, Mr Chavez avoided announcing new policies - as he usually does in victory speeches. Instead, he pledged to fight crime and corruption, which have weighed on his popularity, and consolidate his socialist programs this year. "If we reinforce what we have already done, then starting next year, we will be in a much better position to open new horizons," he said.
His supporters chanted "Heh-ho, Chavez won't go". The opposition accepted defeat, which was larger than expected after pre-vote polls gave Mr Chavez only a slim lead. "Today, Goliath won," opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said, in a reference to what critics say is Mr Chavez's overwhelming advantage in campaigns that he finances with state oil revenue to hold massive rallies and bus voters to polling stations.
The opposition movement says Mr Chavez is an autocrat bent on sculpting Venezuela into a replica of communist Cuba, and it tried to capture discontent over violent crime, economic mismanagement and corruption. But the government campaigned hard. An ex-paratrooper who once led a failed coup before winning power at the ballot box, Mr Chavez has survived a putsch and two national strikes against his rule and has the loyalty of many poor Venezuelans.
Calling former Cuban president Fidel Castro his political "father", Mr Chavez has become the standard bearer for anti-US sentiment in Latin America, using his Opec nation's oil wealth to help allies and counter US influence in the region. * Reuters