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Venezuela declared a new national holiday for Monday
Venezuela declared a new national holiday for Monday to mark 10 years since Hugo Chavez first became president, but with Venezuelans - and Latin America - increasingly divided over his policies.

The new holiday was announced on Sunday, less than 24 hours before it was first celebrated.

Ten years ago, Chavez swore that he would put oil to work to realize Simon Bolivar's dream of consolidating the countries of Latin America. Bolivar was a hero of the 19th-century South American independence movement.

Although fallout from the global financial crisis has started to squeeze important social programs central to Chavez's plans for the country, the outspoken president has been embraced by several Latin American leaders, led by Bolivia's Evo Morales and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Also on the bandwagon of Chavez's so-called Bolivarian Revolution are Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Paraguay's Fernando Lugo.

Less convinced by Chavez's anti-American speeches and his populist policies is a raft of countries closer to Washington, including Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Chile. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is wary of embracing Chavez and his ideas, instead seeking to move Brazil beyond Latin America and establish it on the global stage.

Despite the pull of his rhetoric and policies, the slump in oil prices means international observers are skeptical over the future of the Venezuelan president and his policies.

As Chavez pushes to remove presidential term limits from the Venezuelan constitution in a February 15 referendum, the federal budget is stretched by the drop in global oil prices to around $40 per barrel from mid-2008 highs of $147. Oil sales make up 95% of Venezuela's state revenues, and the budget is based on oil prices of $60 per barrel.

Chavez wants to change the wording of the country's constitution from "the president may be reelected only once" to simply "the president may be reelected" before his second term ends in 2012. More than 50% of voters rejected a similar proposal as part of a package of constitutional amendments in a referendum in December 2007.

One of Chavez's closest allies, Bolivian President Morales, has had more success. Around 60% of Bolivians last week voted for a new left-wing constitution, which allows Morales to run for a second five-year term in presidential elections scheduled for December this year.

Morales, who came to power in 2005 and is the country's first Aymara Indian president, said that the referendum was organized to "improve life for all Bolivians regardless of their skin color, gender, and political or religious orientation."

The controversial new constitution hands more power to the country's Indian population and introduces more economic and land reforms, including a program of land redistribution from the country's rich to the indigenous population.

It also stipulates that more income from Bolivia's natural gas will be channeled to the most impoverished people in the nation, which has the lowest GDP per capita of any South American state.

Almost two-thirds of Latin America's population lives on less than two dollars a day and Chavez has maintained the support of Venezuela's poor with generous subsidies and social programs. While he has so far been able to pursue his ambitious political goals, the referendum could be a stern test of his continuing popularity.

Oil dollars have also been a useful instrument for Chavez in order to create diplomatic allies.

By selling oil to his Latin American allies at a 30-50% discount on world prices, he has received much support from them.

He won the loyalty of Argentina, South America's second-biggest economy after Brazil, by buying up stocks and bonds when the country was on the verge of bankruptcy, and during a much-trumpeted visit by President Kirchner on January 22 the two leaders cemented their strategic relationship by agreeing to meet every three months.

Their next meeting could come with the 54-year-old Venezuelan president buoyed by public approval of his constitutional changes, or facing a tough fight to extend his rule against a backdrop of growing economic problems.

The anniversary may be February 2, but Chavez wants the real celebrations to be on February 15.


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