[J]ust as important [as the referendum's defeat] was Chavez's concession. The opposition "won this victory for themselves," he admitted in a voice whose subdued calm was in contrast to his frequently aggressive political speeches. "My sincere recommendation is that they learn how to handle it." Despite his authoritarian bent, Chavez (whose current and apparently last term ends in 2012) had always insisted he was a democrat — that he was, in fact, forging "a more genuine democracy" in a nation that had in many ways been a sham democracy typical of a number of Latin American countries. His presidential election victories — in 1998, 2000 and 2006, as well as his victory over an attempt to recall him in a 2004 referendum — were all recognized by credible international observers; and that conferred on him a democratic legitimacy that helped blunt accusations by his enemies, especially the U.S., that he was a would-be dictator in the mold of Fidel Castro.
In the end it was a cachet that, fortunately, he knew he couldn't forfeit. As a result, the referendum result will resonate far beyond Venezuela.
That is indeed reason for optimism, but it strikes me as a little too soon to declare victory. After all, Robert Mugabe conceded graceful defeat after a similar referendum in 2000:
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has accepted defeat in a referendum on a new constitution.
"The government accepts the result and accepts the will of the people," the president said in a televised address to the nation.
He added that the result was "unfortunately a 'no' vote".
The next move was, of course, his attempt to consolidate power through the disastrous land reform and associated economic policies that have driven Zimbabwe's economy into the ground.
The situations aren't entirely parallel, of course; situations rarely are. But Chavez's crony populism and hamfisted mismanagement of the country's main economic resource, combined with his obvious belief that the world would be a vastly better place if he had a great deal more power, does not exactly make me sing with joy for his nation's prospects.