August 23, 2007
Venezuela's National Assembly, dominated by allies of President Hugo Chávez, gave unanimous initial approval Tuesday to constitutional reforms that would allow him to run for reelection and possibly govern for decades to come.
Assembly President Cilia Flores said Chávez's proposed changes to the constitution, including the lifting of presidential term limits, were approved by all 167 lawmakers after about six hours of debate.
Final approval is expected within two or three months, and voters will then decide whether to approve the changes in a referendum.
The assembly has been solidly pro-Chávez since the opposition boycotted a 2005 vote and had been expected to sign off on the changes proposed by Chávez in Tuesday's first reading. The reforms, if approved, would extend presidential terms from six to seven years and allow Chávez to run again in 2013.
Government opponents have attacked the reforms, saying they will weaken democracy by permitting Chávez to become a lifelong leader.
Chávez, a former paratroop commander who was reelected by a wide margin in December on promises to steer the country toward socialism, says the changes will give Venezuelans greater decision-making power and aid the transfer of billions of dollars from Venezuela's foreign reserves into social programs.
Ismael Garcia, one of the assembly's few dissenting voices, criticized pro-Chávez lawmakers for excluding opposition groups from the discussion, arguing that Venezuelans of all political leanings must be included in the debate before the proposed reforms are put to a national vote.
Garcia, who voted for the initial approval despite his criticism, said issues ''such as the economic path of a new society'' must be discussed.
''This isn't just any debate,'' he said.
Other reforms would create new types of property to be managed by cooperatives, give neighborhood-based ''communal councils'' administrative responsibilities usually reserved for elected officials and create ''a popular militia'' that would form part of the military. The workday would also be reduced to six hours.
Flores said government-friendly lawmakers have the right to approve the reforms without changing the proposal that Chávez presented last week.
''We are not imposing anything,'' she told state television.