Venezuela's congress, dominated by allies of President Hugo Chavez, gave initial approval on Tuesday to constitutional reforms that would allow him to run for re-election and possibly govern for decades to come.
After about six hours of debate, National Assembly President Cilia Flores said Chavez's proposed changes to the Constitution, including the lifting of presidential term limits, received "majority approval."
Flores did not say how many of the assembly's 167 lawmakers voted for the reforms, saying only that they were approved on first reading with overwhelming support. Final approval is expected within two or three months, and the changes would have to be approved by a simple majority in a public referendum.
The reforms, if approved, would extend presidential terms from six to seven years and allow Chavez to run again in 2013.
Government opponents say the reforms will weaken democracy by permitting Chavez to become a lifelong leader like his ally, Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Ismael Garcia, one of the assembly's few dissidents, criticized pro-Chavez lawmakers for excluding opposition groups from the discussion, arguing that Venezuelans of all political leanings must be included in the debate before the proposed reforms are put to a national vote.
Garcia, a rare critical voice during the debate, said issues "such as the economic path of a new society" must be discussed. "This isn't just any debate."
Other reforms would create new types of property to be managed by cooperatives, give neighborhood-based "communal councils" administrative responsibilities usually reserved for elected officials and create "a popular militia" that would form part of the military. The workday would also be reduced to six hours.
Meanwhile, Peru's earthquake relief effort was shaken by a political row on Tuesday over food aid with labels bearing an image of Chavez and criticism of Peru's government. The cans of tuna, with labels lauding Chavez and condemning Peruvian authorities as "slow, inefficient and heartless," were distributed to survivors of a quake that killed more than 500 people last week.
"One has to ask who is behind this. This is not the moment to take advantage of the circumstances to make electoral propaganda," Peruvian President Alan Garcia said.
Venezuela denied any links to the polemical aid.