Miami Herald Wire Services
October 26, 2007
Lawmakers gave a preliminary OK to the last of Hugo Chávez's constitutional reforms, allowing censorship and detention of people without charge during a state of emergency
Venezuela's government could detain citizens without charges and censor the news media if President Hugo Chávez declares a state of emergency under a draft constitutional amendment adopted Thursday.
The amendment was the last of 69 constitutional reforms to be approved by the National Assembly, dominated by Chávez supporters.
A final decision is expected Tuesday, and the reforms -- which also include such crowd-pleasers as shortening the workday to six hours -- are then expected to be decided by a single yes-no vote in a national referendum on Dec. 2.
''It practically leaves the doors open for them to detain you just because they consider you suspicious,'' said Marino Alvarado, who heads the Venezuelan human rights group Provea.
Roman Catholic leaders, media organizations and other human rights groups have expressed similar concerns about the ''state of emergency'' amendment, which would allow Chávez's government to temporarily suspend certain civil liberties, detain citizens without charges and waive ''the right to information.'' Critics predict this will be used to censor the news media.
Lawmakers allied with Chávez said his brief ouster in a 2002 coup made clear the need for such emergency powers. They accuse private newspapers and television channels of supporting the failed rebellion.
''Restricting information isn't restricting the people's right to be informed,'' pro-Chávez lawmaker Desirée Santos Amaral said. ``It's avoiding abuses, excesses.''
Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations also express concern about an amendment prohibiting foreign funding for groups ''with political aims'' -- a sweeping description that the government could potentially use to cut off money to many organizations.
Even during states of emergency, Venezuelans will still have the right to a defense lawyer and other guarantees, such as Venezuela's constitutional prohibition of torture.
Alvaro said a court challenge of the proposed reforms by his group is ``very possible.''
During a visit to Dominica on Thursday, Organization of American States Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza said the organization is closely monitoring pending reforms in Venezuela and other Latin American countries.
''There are constitutional changes going on in some countries of the region, and certainly we are following them and are very concerned about them,'' he said.
But Insulza downplayed concerns that proposed changes in Venezuela would lead to the establishment of a Cuba-style single-party state, saying Chavez ``is not saying anything about eliminating the parties in opposition.''
Other proposed amendments would lengthen presidential terms from six to seven years, allow Chávez to run for reelection in 2012 and beyond, make it more difficult for voters to petition for a presidential recall election and give the president direct authority over the Central Bank. The reforms also would recognize collective property to be administered by cooperatives and empower state-funded neighborhood councils.
Chávez and his supporters argue the changes deepen democracy and will aid Venezuela's transition to socialism.
The opposition, repeatedly defeated by Chávez at the ballot box, has been divided about whether to participate in the referendum at all, and on Wednesday one group said it plans street protests to try to block the vote.
''History has shown that this regime halts only when it has the people out in the street against it,'' opposition politician Henry Ramos Allup told reporters.