Vote on Chávez's power bid is OK'd
PHIL GUNSONThe Miami HeraldNovember 3, 2007Venezuela's National Assembly called for a countrywide vote Dec. 2 on reorganizing the government -- enlarging presidential power and supplanting local governments with populist councils.Defying critics who say it will lead to virtual dictatorship, Venezuela's legislature gave final approval Friday to a sweeping package of constitutional changes proposed by leftist President Hugo Chávez that already has sparked violent street clashes.
The gamut of changes include the indefinite reelection of presidents, the establishment of socialism as Venezuela's official ideology and a reduction of the working day to six hours.
After approving the package almost unanimously, lawmakers in the Chávez-controlled National Assembly marched two blocks to deliver the documents to the National Electoral Council, whose task is to organize a referendum on the proposals. The provisional date for the vote is Dec. 2.
''I ask God to give me life and health to see this dream come true,'' declared the assembly's deputy president, Desirée Santos Amaral.
But the legislation inspired fierce reactions from opposition political parties, the Catholic church, student bodies, the main business and professional organizations and human rights groups. It even led to splits among Chávez supporters.
In an ''exhortation'' earlier this month, the country's Catholic bishops unanimously described the proposals as ''morally unacceptable,'' saying they implied ''the end of pluralism and political freedom'' for Venezuela.
Scattered throughout the legislation are references to the ''socialist state,'' although in theory the principle of political pluralism will not be revoked and ''socialism'' is not defined.
''This is not a reform,'' said Carlos Ayala, who served on the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, a branch of the Organization of American States. ``It's a new constitution by the back door.''
Ayala is one of many lawyers who argue that changes this large should have been drafted by a specially elected assembly and not just by the legislature. Putting the text to a referendum, he says, will not fix the problem, since ``a popular vote cannot validate unconstitutional acts.''
If the referendum is approved, the president will be granted power to spend the country's foreign-currency reserves as he sees fit, rule large areas of the country via appointed representatives and declare indefinite states of emergency, in which the right to information and to a fair trial can be suspended.
The government argues that the proposals would shift power to grass-roots communal councils. A whole new branch of government known as the ''popular power'' is to be created, weakening elected municipal and state authorities.
''The old concept of an elitist civil society is out of date,'' Chávez said after presenting his reform project. ``Now it's the people, popular power -- that's the new civil society.''
Critics contend that the establishment of a communal council has to be approved by central government, and that they have no independent source of funding -- meaning they will be beholden directly to Chávez.
If approved, the constitutional amendments also are likely to have a major effect on the economy. Giving the president what amounts to the power to print money to cover government deficits may further fuel inflation, which at around 17 percent a year is already among the highest in the world.
A slump in private investment, due to fears about property rights and the rule of law, would leave the country ever more dependent on oil exports. ''We're facing a very gloomy future as far as production is concerned,'' said former central bank director Omar Bello.
José Manuel González, president of the main business chamber, Fedecámaras, said in a statement Friday that the legislators' march to the Electoral Council was a funeral procession for Venezuelan democracy.
Pro-Chávez legislator Eustoquio Contreras, endorsing the proposals, said that what had died was capitalism.
Students, who have been prominent in the campaign against the sweeping changes, marched by the tens of thousands to the Electoral Council on Thursday to demand that the referendum be postponed. Several people were injured in clashes with police, the National Guard and pro-Chávez demonstrators.
The students argue that the electorate still does not know what it will be voting on, not least because the Assembly made dozens of last-minute additions.
Pro-Chávez legislator Darío Vivas told Unión Radio on Friday that the modifications sprang from meetings with voters. ''There has been sufficient information,'' he said. ``It was the people that enriched President Chávez's proposal.''
Opinion polls suggest the electorate is deeply split but that approval is likely with a low turnout in the voting.
In a surprise, last-minute move, Chávez agreed Wednesday that voters should be given the opportunity to vote on two blocks of changes, one of them his original 33 proposals and the other most of the rest.
This was interpreted by some commentators as reflecting concern that even pro-Chávez voters were unenthusiastic about the package as a whole.
The campaign for a ''yes'' vote is likely to focus more on the president himself -- who remains highly popular -- than on the details of the reorganization.
''If things stay the way they are,'' Edmond Saade, chairman of the polling company Datos, said in an interview with the daily El Nacional, ``the president is likely to win the referendum with no difficulty.''