- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez last night called for dramatic changes to Venezuela’s constitution, delivering a key address on reforms that are expected to allow him to be re-elected indefinitely.

Mr. Chavez, speaking to the National Assembly, said the changes affect “less than 10 percent” of the constitution but would bring Venezuela “new horizons for the new era.”

The president, who is seeking to transform Venezuelan society along socialist lines, denied that he wants lifelong power as his opponents claim.

“They accuse me of making plans to be in power forever or to concentrate power. We know it isn’t like that. It’s power of the people,” Mr. Chavez said. “So many lies in the world. I doubt there is any country on this planet with a democracy more alive than the one we enjoy in Venezuela today.”

Critics accuse Mr. Chavez of seeking to remain as president for decades to come, like his close friend Fidel Castro in Cuba. They argue that his main goal is to expand his power and ensure he will be able to run again in 2012.

The Venezuelan leader’s political allies firmly control the National Assembly, which is expected to approve the reform plan within months. The plan then would have to be approved by citizens in a national referendum.

Mr. Chavez has stressed the need to end presidential term limits that prevent him from seeking re-election in 2012, but he began his speech discussing what he called a transition to “a new society” and other reforms, including territorial changes.

“There are 33 articles that starting tomorrow will begin to be read, analyzed, criticized,” Mr. Chavez said, adding that with the speech “a great debate” begins. He made clear whom he expects to oppose him, saying: “We can defeat the forces of [U.S.] imperialism and the servile oligarchy.”

Before lawmakers, Mr. Chavez held up a small copy of the country’s constitution, dating to his first term in 1999, and called it one of the world’s “most advanced,” but said he and members of a presidential commission have been “working intensely” on ways to improve it.

He waved to a crowd of cheering supporters as he walked into the legislature with fireworks exploding overhead. His opponents, meanwhile, attacked the reform plan.

Chavez is seeking to reduce the territory held by the opposition and give his intention to remain in power a legal foundation,” said Gerardo Blyde, an opposition leader and former lawmaker.

He said many other reforms are likely to be “red capes” like those used by a bullfighter “to distract Venezuelans from his real objective.”

Venezuela’s Roman Catholic Bishops Conference has complained that Mr. Chavez’s reform proposals were drafted without public involvement.

A former paratrooper commander who was first elected in 1998, Mr. Chavez denies copying Cuba and insists that personal freedoms will be respected. He and his supporters say democracy has flourished under his administration, noting that he has won elections repeatedly by wide margins.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that the U.S. would wait for details of Mr. Chavez’s proposal before commenting on it. He added that, in the past, the Venezuelan leader “has taken a number of different steps … that have really eroded some of the underpinnings of democracy in Venezuela.”

Since his re-election to a new six-year term in December, Mr. Chavez has alarmed opponents, who claim he is headed toward Cuban-style communism.

He pushed through a new constitution in 1999, shortly after he was first elected, but has said the charter must be redrafted so that Venezuela’s capitalist system “finishes dying” to make way for socialism.

Ahead of Mr. Chavez’s speech, actors sang in the National Assembly as they performed a scene from the life of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, the spiritual father of the socialist movement that Mr. Chavez calls the Bolivarian Revolution.

Crowds of red-clad supporters cheered outside the National Assembly, holding flags and signs reading: “Yes to the reform, on the path to 21st Century Socialism.” Giant video screens were set up, and folk music blared from sound trucks near a two-story-tall inflatable figure of Mr. Chavez.



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