November 02, 2007
(AP) -- Venezuela's National Assembly overwhelmingly gave final approval Friday to constitutional changes that would greatly expand the power of President Hugo Chavez and permit him to run for re-election indefinitely.
The assembly approved 69 amendments with all but seven of the 167 lawmakers raising their hands in favor of the changes, which threaten to spur fresh political upheaval in this oil-rich South American nation.
''Today the Venezuelan people have a pencil in their hands to write their own history, and it's not going to be the history of the elite,'' said pro-Chavez lawmaker Earle Herrera amid applause.
But dissident lawmaker Ricardo Gutierrez railed against pro-Chavez congressmen for approving amendments that ``don't have anything to do with giving more power to the people.''
If approved by voters in a Dec. 2 referendum, the changes would be Chavez's most radical move yet in his push to transform Venezuela into a socialist state.
The changes would allow the government to expropriate private property, take control of the Central Bank and create new types of property managed by cooperatives. And they would extend presidential terms from six to seven years and allow Chavez to run again in 2012.
The vote by lawmakers came a day after soldiers used tear gas, plastic bullets and water cannons to scatter tens of thousands who turned out to protest the amendments, saying they would violate civil liberties and derail democracy.
It was the biggest demonstration against Chavez in months, and appeared to revive Venezuela's languid opposition. Students promised more street protest over the weekend.
Opposition parties, human rights groups and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church fear civil liberties would be severely weakened under the constitutional changes.
Chavez, a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, denies the reforms threaten civil liberties. He and his supporters say the changes will help move the country toward socialism, while giving neighborhood-based assemblies more decision-making power in using government funds for local projects like paving streets and building public housing