President Hugo Chavez presented his long-awaited plan to revise the Venezuelan Constitution on Wednesday, including a proposal to eliminate presidential term limits -- a move critics fear would allow the fiery anti-U.S. leader to further concentrate power in his hands.
In an address to the National Assembly, Chavez laid out 33 changes that he says would incorporate socialist ideology into the constitution that he pushed through in 2000, and redistribute power and resources to the poor and disadvantaged.
Chavez proposed adding one year to the current six-year presidential term and eliminating the two-term limit, allowing him and future presidents to run for reelection indefinitely. He rejected criticism that he was becoming increasingly autocratic.
“It’s not that I want to enthrone myself,” Chavez said. “This shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s done this way in any number of countries.
“There are many lies circulating in the world, about a dictatorship in Venezuela, about a concentration of power in Venezuela,” he said. “This is a transfer of power to the people.”
The proposal had been expected.
Chavez said his overwhelming electoral victory in December authorized him to lead the country to socialism, and that a law passed by the National Assembly in January giving him power to rule by decree also gave him the authority to direct a reform of the constitution.
The constitutional revisions must be approved by the National Assembly before being put to voters in a referendum at the end of the year.
Especially since a short-lived coup in 2002 that Chavez says the U.S. orchestrated, the Venezuelan leader has been a strident critic of Washington. He regularly belittles President Bush and uses the promise of free or cut-rate oil and refining facilities to counter U.S. influence in Latin America. And he has made friends with countries such as Iran.
Chavez proposed a new “geometry of power” by grouping several Venezuelan states together to create an unspecified number of federal districts with economic and political autonomy. He said creation of these districts would enable him to effectively concentrate resources and frustrate local officials “who pretend to be little presidents.”
The president also wants to confer legal status on about 25,000 “communal councils” that he has formed in conjunction with worker cooperatives to own and operate thousands of state-owned assets, including steel plants, toll roads, foreclosed hotels and confiscated farms. The councils and cooperatives are the nuclei of the socialist society that Chavez envisions.
Critics charge that by creating federal districts and giving new power to the communal councils, the populist president seeks to bypass governors and mayors and extend his personal power.
“His plan is a trick that has an anti-democratic objective,” said Gerardo Fernandez, a constitutional law expert based here.
Teodoro Petkoff, a former planning minister and Chavez supporter who now publishes a newspaper critical of the president, described Chavez’s government as “regressively autocratic.”
Chavez said that, although tempted, he was not prepared to abolish private property. He said other socialist leaders told him that would be a mistake. But he said private property owners risked confiscation if their operations “damaged” communities.
By calling his proposal a “reform” rather than a wholesale revision, Chavez avoids elections to form a constitutional assembly such as the one he called in 1999. Rather, Chavez has drafted the new measures himself with the help of a constitutional commission made up of sympathetic lawmakers, judges and journalists.
Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College who specializes in Venezuela, said Chavez didn’t call an assembly because he might not have been able to control the result as closely as he can by presenting a slate of proposals that a compliant National Assembly is likely to pass. The National Assembly has consisted of 100% Chavez followers since opposition parties boycotted 2005 legislative elections.
Corrales said the current difficulties being experienced by Bolivian President Evo Morales in molding an assembly to his will have been a lesson to Chavez.
Although Chavez has been subjected to widespread criticism in recent weeks, his popularity remains above 60%. He has been criticized for bending Venezuela’s institutions to his will, but Chavez’s supporters remind critics that he has won four national elections, including his initial election victory in 1998.
His reform proposals had been expected since shortly after Chavez handily won reelection in December and promised to extend what he calls his socialist Bolivarian Revolution to all facets of society.
His refusal in May to renew the broadcast license of the nation’s most popular television station, which took a critical line in covering Chavez, was criticized by some of his own supporters as suppression of free speech. The move against RCTV also cost him support internationally among leftists unhappy with Bush and neoliberal economic policies, who saw Chavez as a counterweight.
More recently, Chavez’s image suffered after a Venezuelan businessman with links to the state oil company was caught trying to enter Argentina with nearly $800,000 in cash. Chavez so far has declined to investigate the incident, describing it as an “imperialist trick” by the U.S. Critics allege that it reflects widespread money laundering and influence peddling.
In recent weeks, Chavez has floated trial balloons to gauge public reaction to possible constitutional reforms. Those that apparently have been discarded included plans to impose government control over all the nation’s private universities and schools, and to pass legislation to prohibit foreigners from criticizing the government.
The National Assembly will debate the proposed changes “starting tomorrow,” assembly President Cilia Flores said Wednesday.
Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin America studies professor at Pomona College, said that though “the process up to now has been rather closed, from here forward we’re going to be seeing a broad and ample national debate.”
“It’s not just a matter of a president proposing it and the assembly rubber stamping,” Tinker Salas said.