- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

CARACAS, Venezuela | Venezuela’s congress is often criticized for ignoring the business of the country as legislators don Arab kaffiyehs to taunt Israel or gaze at photos of topless women — supposedly in the name of breast-cancer research.

In reality, the National Assembly has become a key force in cementing President Hugo Chavez’s socialist agenda, potentially changing Venezuela for decades to come. The opposition holds none of the 167 seats, though a dozen lawmakers have broken ties with Mr. Chavez over what they call his growing authoritarianism and often vote against him.

So far this year, legislators have cleared the way for the government to seize more private property and oil companies, stripped power from opposition elected officials and approved the redrawing of voting districts that could favor the ruling party.

Protesters took to the streets this week over the latest legislative proposal to revamp the public education curriculum around “Bolivarian principles.” The opposition says that amounts to socialist indoctrination; Chavez supporters say it involves teaching values such as nationalism, humanism and civic pride.

Hundreds gathered outside the assembly in downtown Caracas, chanting “Don’t mess with my kids!” One woman held a banner reading: “No to Cuban-style education!”

Mr. Chavez and his allies insist this is simply democracy at work, and even the president’s opponents grudgingly concede they have no one to blame but themselves for the rubber-stamping.

Their candidates boycotted 2005 congressional elections over concerns about fraud in Venezuela’s electronic voting system - and “gave the assembly to Chavez,” said Luis Ignacio Planas of the opposition Copei party.

Any challenge to the laws the assembly passes goes to the Supreme Court, which ruling-party lawmakers have stacked with justices friendly to the government.

“It’s true the assembly is atypical,” said lawmaker Wilmer Iglesia of Homeland for All, a small pro-government party that occasionally breaks ranks with Mr. Chavez’s ruling party. “Those who criticize it have a high degree of responsibility because they did not participate in the elections.”

It wasn’t always like this.

When Mr. Chavez was first elected in 1998, the legislature was a two-house parliament controlled by the opposition. In 1999, the socialist leader pushed through a new constitution that created a unicameral body, and his allies won elections to fill it. The body became entirely pro-Chavez after the opposition boycotted the 2005 elections.

In a highly polarized country, where most people are either for Mr. Chavez or against him, lawmakers rarely stray from the party line.

“The most important person in the assembly is the messenger who brings the orders from ‘El Comandante,’ ” said Mr. Planas, giving Chavez the same sobriquet as Fidel Castro, the Venezuelan leader’s mentor.

As their first order of business this year, legislators evicted the democratically elected opposition mayor of Caracas from City Hall, stripped him of most local revenue sources and gave Mr. Chavez the power to appoint a close ally to run the capital.

They then voted to bring seaports and airports under federal control, weakening governors who counted on those tariffs to fund their budgets.

Mr. Chavez called on the assembly last month to speed up its work.

“We must accelerate the discussion and approval of revolutionary laws,” he said.

Legislators followed by giving the National Electoral Council, whose directors are appointed by the assembly, the power to redraw voting districts.

Critics call it a flagrant attempt to gerrymander opposition parties out of their districts for next year’s congressional elections after Chavez foes won key races in last year’s gubernatorial and mayoral elections.

This week, it’s the education bill that’s expected to come up for debate. It would require public schools to teach “the Bolivarian Doctrine” and give Chavez-controlled neighborhood councils power over their local schools. Mr. Chavez shelved a similar bill in 2001 after protesters filled the streets.

Other bills expected to go to the floor in coming months would redefine private-property rights and give the government control of foreign funding for human rights organizations — such as the aid the U.S. government provides to pro-democracy groups.

Of course, Mr. Chavez has the power to impose many socialist-inspired changes without asking the National Assembly at all. He has nationalized a growing list of businesses by decree, and has said the government should take over some golf courses in urban areas to make room for housing, calling it a “bourgeois sport.”

But a large chunk of his socialist project is fought - or not - in the assembly. Those who argue against Chavez projects have seen their microphones shut off and resort to shouting. Mr. Iglesia went one step further when his repeated requests for the floor were ignored: He grabbed a megaphone.

National Assembly President Cilia Flores denies taking direct orders from Mr. Chavez.

“We legislate for the people,” she said.

But some Venezuelans aren’t happy with their representatives.

“They’re not concerned with the problems that affect the population. They seem too concerned with politics,” said Liliana Gonzalez, a 45-year-old secretary who supports Mr. Chavez - but not some of the assembly’s tactics.

When legislators are not in marathon sessions approving Chavez-sponsored bills, they hold forums on the life of revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara or celebrate Afro-Venezuelan culture by swinging their hips and dancing to drums inside the chamber.

In this year’s opening sessions, lawmakers wore kaffiyehs and raised a Palestinian flag outside the building to protest the Gaza war and launched probes into purported assassination plots against Mr. Chavez.

The opposition Globovision television network broadcast live footage of lawmaker Hugo Marquez looking at topless women on the Internet during a debate. His defense: “I was looking at an e-mail that a friend sent me about breast cancer.”

Mr. Marquez and fellow legislators also could have the final say on such media reports.

Pro-Chavez Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz recently proposed legislation that would punish owners of newspapers, television channels and radio stations who “manipulate the news with the purpose of transmitting a false perception of the facts.”

Lawmakers have set aside the proposal, saying there’s no need, yet, for such legislation.

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