Venezuela starts to construct single ruling party

Monday, December 18, 2006; 5:46 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezelan President Hugo Chavez's dominant political party said on Monday it was dissolving, laying the keystone for a single ruling party that critics fear is Chavez's attempt to turn Venezuela into Cuba.

Chavez, who cruised to re-election this month, has said the single party is intended to improve the administration of his self-styled leftist revolution, not copy the model of his mentor, Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Information Minister Willian Lara said The Fifth Republic Movement, by far Venezuela's most popular party, was dissolving to form the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

"This is a new party born of a revolutionary process," Lara, one of the leaders of The Fifth Republic Movement, said at a news conference.

Chavez hopes that by sacrificing the party he founded in 1997, he will encourage the 23 other parties that support his government to surrender their own parties and join the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

The opposition sharply criticized Chavez during the election campaign for veering toward despotism with his one-party vision.

Chavez, president since 1999, flatly denied this, saying he would always be ready to step aside if he lost an election.

The anti-U.S. leader also has said he wants to hold a referendum next year on allowing him to run for the presidency as many times has likes, scrapping the existing two-term limit.

Chavez draws his core support from the poorest communities who have benefited from clinics and schools built with the OPEC heavyweight's oil windfall.

Chavez enjoys close ties to Cuba, which receives Venezuelan oil on advantageous terms in return for the services of some 20,000 doctors who work in Venezuela.

However, it is a relationship which Chavez must handle with caution with opinion polls showing a large majority of Venezuelans strongly disliking Cuba's system of government.

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