Sun, Nov 04, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Chavez's reforms pass assembly

SWEET DEAL Polls show many Venezuelans oppose centralizing presidential power but favor benefits included in the package, such as reducing the work day to six hours

AGENCIES , CARACAS

The Venezuelan National Assembly approved a constitutional overhaul on Friday that would enhance President Hugo Chavez's authority, allowing him to be re-elected indefinitely and giving him the power to handpick vice presidents for various new regions to be created in the country.

The 69 amendments still need to be approved by voters in a Dec. 2 referendum before they take effect.

Tensions ahead of that vote are increasing; protesters clashed with the police on downtown streets in Caracas this week and capital flight is accelerating.

Pro-Chavez lawmakers, who dominate the legislature, shouted "yes, yes," and chanted the president's political slogan "Fatherland, socialism or death" in approving the measures.

Polls show many Venezuelans oppose centralizing presidential power but favor sweeteners the socialist leader has included in the package, such as reducing the workday to six hours and giving social security benefits to unregistered taxi drivers.

The opposition, the Roman Catholic Church, university students and rights groups, have denounced the scores of proposed changes to the Constitution as an authoritarian power grab by a man who has vowed to rule for decades.

Wall Street is concerned that the package will further chill investment, especially after the anti-US president decreed a raft of nationalizations earlier this year with the vow of making the major oil exporter a socialist state.

The package also would strip the central bank of its autonomy, give Chavez control over international reserves, empower authorities to detain citizens without charge and open the way to censoring the media in "political emergencies."

"Today is a black page in the history of this country and its democracy," said lawmaker Ismael Garcia, whose party has broken with Chavez over the plan it says is a step back toward the Soviet era.

With only a month available for a debate on the measures, the president easily should win a vote that mainly will be a reflection of his popularity among the majority poor who benefit from his spending of the OPEC nation's oil bonanza on clinics, schools and food subsidies, pollsters say.

Still, government officials are working to mobilize Chavez supporters because of worries abstention could be high.

The referendum package introduces new legal concepts such as "social property" and "collective property," promoting them above individual interests.

Without the law change, Chavez would leave office in 2013.

Some traditional Chavez voters worry about his handling of the economy and his reforms.

"I don't agree with this reform," said Carlos, a 54-year-old fisherman who used to vote with the president.

"Chavez has made a mistake. He wants to turn Venezuela into Cuba and that's wrong," he said, without giving his last name. "If he carries on like this, he's going to fall from power."

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