The New York Times
November 3, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 2 — The National Assembly approved a constitutional overhaul on Friday that would enhance President Hugo Chávez’s authority, allowing him to be re-elected indefinitely and giving him the power to handpick rulers, to be called vice presidents, for various new regions to be created in the country.
The 69 amendments still need to be approved by voters in a Dec. 2 referendum before they take effect.
Tensions ahead of that vote are increasing; protesters clashed with the police on downtown streets here this week and capital flight is accelerating. The currency, the bolívar, touched a low value of 6,800 to the dollar on Friday in unregulated trading, compared with the official rate of 2,150.
In addition to potentially strengthening Mr. Chávez’s grip on power, the measures approved by lawmakers on Friday have heightened economic uncertainty. The new amendments would facilitate expropriations of private property. Managers at private companies are also alarmed about a proposed reduction in the workday, from eight hours to six.
“Venezuelan democracy was buried today,” said José Manuel González, the president of Fedecamaras, Venezuela’s main business association.
Still, some political analysts here say the changes proposed by Mr. Chávez would not significantly alter political life in the country. Followers of the president, after all, already control the legislature, the Supreme Court, the federal bureaucracy, the oil industry, every state-owned company and nearly every state government.
Mr. Chávez, moreover, has carried out nationalizations of foreign companies with ease this year. The new Constitution would end the central bank’s autonomy, but that institution effectively stopped being independent some time ago. The breadth of Mr. Chávez’s proposed Constitution, however, has given pause to human rights groups. One measure creates new rules for declaring states of emergency, allowing security forces to round up citizens without legal protections.
Mr. Chávez’s supporters hailed the National Assembly’s vote as a step toward creating a socialist society. Just a handful of the body’s 167 lawmakers declined to approve the amendments, reflecting the president’s support in the legislature, which has drawn scorn here for its hesitance to engage in debate with the president’s critics.
But the vote also reflects a bumbling political opposition, which boycotted assembly elections in late 2004, ceding their space to Mr. Chávez’s followers in what might be the country’s most important forum for discussion. Even today, members of the opposition are divided as to whether they should vote or abstain in the referendum.
As rising oil prices strengthen Mr. Chávez’s ability to give subsidies to the poor, even opponents of the new Constitution see it winning approval. With an air of resignation, Roman Catholic leaders here called the changes “morally unacceptable.”
With his customary flourish, Mr. Chávez accused the bishops of forgetting their principles. “If Christ was alive, was here physically,” the president said this week, “he would drive them away with the crack of a whip.”