The Washington Post
August 16, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Aug. 15 -- President Hugo Chávez called for radical changes to Venezuela's constitution Wednesday night, proposing to eliminate current limits on his reelection and extend presidential terms.
Speaking to the National Assembly, Chávez said presidential terms should be extended from six to seven years. But the leftist leader, who is seeking to transform Venezuelan society along socialist lines, denied allegations by his opponents that he wants lifelong power.
"I propose to the sovereign people the seven-year presidential term, the president can be reelected immediately for a new term," Chávez said. "If someone says this is a project to entrench oneself in power, no, it's only a possibility, a possibility that depends on many variables."
Chávez also proposed ending the autonomy of Venezuela's central bank, which would give him access to billions of dollars from the bank's reserves; creating new types of property that would be managed by cooperatives; and creating "a popular militia" that would form part of the military.
[The Reuters news service reported that other proposals included strengthening the government's powers to control assets of companies in expropriation cases and reducing the maximum workday from eight hours to six.]
Critics accuse Chávez of seeking to remain as president of the oil-rich nation for decades to come, like his close friend Fidel Castro in Cuba, and to steer it toward Cuban-style communism.
Chávez, a former paratroops commander who was first elected in 1998 and reelected to a six-year term in December, insists that personal freedoms will be respected. He and his supporters say democracy has flourished under his administration, noting he has repeatedly won elections by wide margins.
Chávez pushed through a new constitution in 1999. But he said the charter must be redrafted so that Venezuela's capitalist system "finishes dying" to make way for socialism.
His political allies firmly control the National Assembly, which could approve the changes within months. The plan then would go before citizens for approval in a national referendum.
Opponents say his main goal is simply to expand his power and assure he will be able to run again in 2012. "Chávez is seeking to reduce the territory held by the opposition and give his intention to remain in power a legal foundation," said Gerardo Blyde, an opposition leader and former lawmaker.
Before Chávez's speech, actors sang in the National Assembly as they performed a scene from the life of South American independence hero Simón Bolivar, the spiritual father of the movement that Chávez calls the Bolivarian Revolution.
Crowds of red-clad supporters cheered outside the Assembly, holding flags and signs reading: "Yes to the reform, on the path to 21st-century socialism." Giant video screens were set up, and folk music blared from sound trucks near a two-story-tall inflatable figure of Chávez.
Earlier in Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would wait for details of Chávez's proposals before commenting on them. He added that Chávez in the past "has taken a number of different steps . . . that have really eroded some of the underpinnings of democracy in Venezuela."