VENEZUELA'S leader Hugo Chavez usually thrives on political tussles but rarely has the socialist president looked as chastened as he did after a stinging defeat in a referendum last week.
Not that the verbose admirer of Simon Bolivar was caught tongue-tied by the rebuke. After voters rejected his package of constitutional reforms, which would have enabled him to stand for election indefinitely and put the country even more firmly on a socialist course, Chavez chided followers who abstained, warning them that "the referendum wasn't approved, so I'll have to go in 2013 when his term in office ends. You owe me one, you owe the nation. It's up to you whether you pay us back."
The reforms - rejected by a slim margin of 50.7% to 49.3% with an abstention rate of 44% - would have restricted private property, shortened the working week from 44 to 36 hours and extended social security to casual labour.
A defiant Chavez said: "I don't care if in the end I'm left with four or five revolutionaries, I welcome them - what I don't want is two-bit revolutionaries."
While the setback was either a reflection of complacency among his supporters or a burgeoning fear that the reforms package might deprive even the poor of what little private property they own, the opposition, such as it is, seized upon it as a sign that the president's grassroots base was beginning to erode.
Chavez's opponents had already been revelling in an earlier, widely broadcast rebuke when King Juan Carlos of Spain told the Venezuelan leader to "shut up" during an international conference in Santiago, Chile.
The king's undiplomatic outburst has since become a popular ring-tone on Venezuelan mobiles. With the president's latest embarrassment, the opposition feels it has another stick with which to beat him, and some political ground to build on.
But has it? Chavez has long been branded either a new Fidel Castro or a reincarnation of the nationalist "caudillos" who ruled parts of Latin America in the 1950s, such as Argentina's Juan Domingo Peron. By accepting the result, however grudgingly, Chavez has confounded his foes at home and abroad by emerging from the referendum as a leader still prepared to play by the democratic rulebook. Even US President George W Bush admitted as much: "The Venezuelan people have voted for democracy," he said rather lamely as the result became clear.
How much Chavez's acceptance of defeat had to do with reported pressure from the military to abide by the electorate's verdict on the referendum from its very inception is not clear, although Chavez flatly rejected the notion.
Distrust and fear of his intentions go beyond Venezuelan borders, however. Cuban exiles believe that with Castro on his deathbed, the Cuban leader's close friendship with Chavez could spell trouble in a post-Castro Cuba. Venezuela has supported Havana's economic recovery by supplying it with up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day in return for healthcare and other social services, and Castro's opponents suspect that the Cuban leader may see Chavez as a potential successor in furthering the socialist cause in Latin America.
One article in the proposed new constitution referring to ties between the two countries was seen by some as a first step towards a formal alliance - the dreaded "Venecuba" so feared by the anti-Chavez media and Cuban exiles.
Castro last month warned Chavez, in an article in the Cuban state organ Granma, that he should refrain from travelling in a convertible or other open-top vehicle to avoid the risk of US-sponsored assassination. Castro himself is a survivor of many attempts on his life by the CIA, as the agency has openly admitted.
"Why was Fidel Castro so intent on bequeathing to the Cuban people a Venezuelan leader?" asked Madrid-based Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner in an article published in the Washington Post on Friday. "The answer is worrisome. It was a way to guarantee that the revolution would continue to be an instrument in the struggle against the United States and capitalism."
Castro, Montaner said, thought Chavez could prevent the Cuban model being transformed into "a single-party, iron-fisted capitalist system such as exists in China and Vietnam - a model that the old Cuban comandante finds repugnant."
In any case, the question was academic, because "judging from all the symptoms, the much-promised era of revitalisation of Marx's ideas and objectives is beginning to weaken".
Chavez, as ever, begged to differ, suggesting he would not shelve his reforms package, saying: "Brace yourselves, rest assured that there will be another offensive on this proposal, either as it stands, or in an amended or simplified form."
©2007 newsquest (sunday herald) limited