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Private property not threatened: Chavez

BOLIVARIAN DREAMS The Venezuelan president said that private property is not the only game in town, while his proposed constitutional changes favor collective property

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Venezuela doesn't intend to eliminate private property when it overhauls its Constitution this year in line with President Hugo Chavez's vision for "21st century socialism."

"The Bolivarian revolution, I repeat, doesn't exclude, prohibit or have any kind of plan to eliminate private property," Chavez said at a press conference in Caracas on Saturday, referring to his program to transform Venezuela in honor of South America's 19th century revolutionary, Simon Bolivar.

While preserving private property, a revised constitution would also protect "social" and "collective" property, such the nation's oil reserves, the seventh-largest in the world, Chavez said, without giving further details.

Constitutional changes, to be drafted by a presidential committee and submitted for public approval in a national referendum later this year, are the first of "five engines" of reform Chavez has outlined for Venezuela since beginning his second, six-year term in office on Jan. 10.

He has since used decree powers to nationalize the country's largest telephone and electricity companies and seize a larger stake in foreign oil joint ventures.

On Friday, his government "temporarily expropriated" two meat-processing plants, further raising concern that private property rights will soon disappear.

"Private property isn't the only kind of property," Chavez said on Saturday. "When the Conquistadores arrived here by sea, there was social property, collective property and everyone was the owner of everything."

Chavez also questioned the central bank's method of measuring inflation, which reached 18.4 percent last month, the highest annual rate in Latin America. The move echoed his vows to slash the bank's autonomy, which he has called a "neo-liberal" and "perverse" concept unsuited to his vision for Venezuela.

He asked last month for constitutional changes to grant him greater access to international currency reserves, in order to fund social programs in case of a budget shortfall.

The law only allows him to use reserves in excess of US$29 billion, while the bank has US$36 billion in its coffers.

Chavez also declared that the methods for measuring poverty rates used elsewhere in the world "aren't valid in Venezuela," which officially reported 39.7 percent household poverty in 2005.

The Venezuelan Constitution, drafted and approved by referendum shortly after Chavez first took office in 1999, introduced new education, healthcare and environmental rights and eliminated the country's bi-cameral legislature, creating a single assembly now entirely controlled by Chavez supporters.

Revisions Chavez proposed would ban the sale of state assets, designate more property as "communal" and do away with presidential term limits, allowing for his re-election indefinitely.

Chavez said he wasn't worried by the idea that the US could boost imports of alternative fuel from Brazil -- the world's largest producer of ethanol -- in order to ease its dependence on oil, including Venezuelan crude.

A US tariff on imported Brazilian ethanol expires at the end of next year.

Venezuela, which relies on hydropower to generate much of its electricity, will also explore other alternatives and may "in the future" build its own nuclear power plant.

"I hope the US doesn't think we're trying to build a bomb," Chavez added. "We already have a bomb: community councils."

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