In defeat, Mr Chávez said that he would try again for the constitutional reform. But if he does, he will probably lose again. For something fundamental has changed in Venezuela....
The ramifications of Mr Chávez's defeat go far wider than Venezuela. He has always proclaimed the Bolivarian revolution to be continent-wide. Because it is such a personal project, its life is now finite: absent constitutional change, Mr Chávez must leave office by 2013. Economic pressures at home mean that his bounteous foreign aid—including cheap oil for Cuba—may be trimmed before then. That gives extra urgency to the efforts of Cuba's acting president, Raúl Castro, to launch economic reforms against the apparent opposition of his elder brother, Fidel. In Bolivia, Evo Morales, a socialist of Andean-Indian descent who is Mr Chávez's closest disciple, faces mounting opposition to his efforts to impose a new constitution that would cement his power. In Ecuador another self-proclaimed 21st-century socialist, Rafael Correa, is rapidly putting some distance between his ideas and Mr Chávez's.
Although in some ways they threaten democracy, the likes of Mr Chávez and Mr Morales may well have ended up broadening it, since they represent groups who have previously felt excluded. Their mistake lies in clinging to an old-fashioned socialism, involving the centralisation of political power and state control of the economy. Most Venezuelans—and most Latin Americans—clearly have no enthusiasm for this. It was not so much Mr Chávez who was defeated in the referendum, as his bankrupt philosophy. That is good news for Latin America, and especially for its poor.
Chavez can still do great harm since he will remain in power until 2013; and, with his sort of malignant personality, it is very likely he will. But it has become clear that his touted "21st Century Socialism" is just the same, tired, old 20th century Marxist bull, proven to be toxic to human society. It was already well on its way to poisoning all of Venezuela, and we can expect continued societal deterioration, increased poverty, and endless misery in that part of the world for a while. Whether this one democratic vote can really stop the sociopathic forces of socialist opporession remains to be seen.
The bankrupt philosophy has been exposed and defeated, but the malignant leader soldiers on and won't go down without a fight.
But he has been wounded, and because of that, there is some hope for Venezuela.