August 16, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela --Opponents of President Hugo Chavez vowed Thursday to block his plans to radically overhaul the constitution, warning the changes would give him unlimited power and cripple democracy in Venezuela.
Some of the more sweeping constitutional reforms proposed by Chavez Wednesday night would extend presidential terms from six to seven years and eliminate current limits on his re-election. He also wants the central government to have greater control over local government and would end the autonomy of Venezuela's Central Bank -- potentially funneling billions of dollars in foreign reserves into social programs.
Chavez called for a transition to "a new society" that will lift millions in the oil-rich nation out of poverty. He said the constitutional changes are necessary so that capitalism in Venezuela "finishes dying" to allow his socialist revolution to flourish.
But his opponents see the move as another power grab by an increasingly autocratic leader and fear he wants to steer Venezuela toward Cuban-style communism.
"We will go from town to town to mobilize the people to confront this attempted constitutional coup," said Manuel Rosales, the leader of Venezuela's largest opposition party. "A constitutional reform isn't necessary. What the people want is for this constitution to be obeyed."
If approved, the reforms would be Chavez's most radical step yet in his drive to transform Venezuela into a socialist state. Since his December re-election, he has already nationalized the oil, telecommunications and electricity sectors.
Among other reforms proposed Wednesday, Chavez would create new types of property to be managed by cooperatives, reduce the workday to six hours and create "a popular militia" that would form part of the military.
He also urged lawmakers to increase the government's power to expropriate private property before getting a court's approval to remove obstacles to his plans to redistribute "unproductive" farming lands to among the poor and open the way for cooperatives to manage failing factories.
The president's supporters say the reforms will help the poor by bolstering initiatives from free adult education to "communal councils" that give citizens increased participation in community planning.
But critics say the new constitution would let Chavez tighten government control over the economy in the western hemisphere's largest oil exporter and allow him to be re-elected indefinitely.
"Why doesn't he leave the legislative technicalities aside," Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition-sided Tal Cual newspaper, wrote in an editorial Thursday, "and propose, once and for all, a one-line article reading: 'Hugo Chavez will be president however long he wants.'"
The president's political allies firmly control the National Assembly and are expected to approve the reform plan within months. It would then have to be approved by voters in a national referendum.
Government foes said they would mount a nationwide campaign lobbying Venezuelans to oppose the reform -- a daunting task in a country that re-elected Chavez to the presidency by a wide margin last December.
Chavez was first elected in 1998 and took office the following year. Current presidential term limits prevent him from seeking re-election to a third term in 2012.
Chavez on Wednesday denied he wanted to be president for life.
"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," he said.
Under Chavez, tensions with Washington have increased. The U.S. called the ex-lieutenant colonel a negative influence on Latin America and criticized Venezuela's increasingly close ties with U.S. foes such as Iran.
Washington is also weary of Venezuela's purchases of about $3 billion worth of arms from Russia, including 53 military helicopters, 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, and 24 SU-30 Sukhoi fighter jets.