Venezuela Poised to Hand Chávez Wide-Ranging Powers

The largest fixed-line telephone company in Venezuela, CANTV, is to be nationalized under a plan announced recently by President Hugo Chávez.
The largest fixed-line telephone company in Venezuela, CANTV, is to be nationalized under a plan announced recently by President Hugo Chávez. (By Leslie Mazoch -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela -- The line forms every day after dawn at the Spanish Consulate, hundreds of people seeking papers permitting them to abandon Venezuela for new lives in Spain. They say they are filled with despair at President Hugo Chávez's growing power, and they appear not to be alone. At other consulates in this capital, long lines form daily.

Two months after Chávez was reelected to another six-year term by an overwhelming margin, Venezuela is experiencing a fundamental shift in its political and economic climate that could remake the country in a way perhaps not seen in Latin America since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959. On Wednesday, the National Assembly is expected to entrust him with tremendous powers that will allow him to dictate new laws for 18 months to transform the economy, redraw the structure of government and establish a new funding apparatus for Venezuela's huge oil wealth.

Chávez's government announced earlier that it intends to nationalize strategic industries, such as telecommunications and electric utilities, and amend the constitution to end presidential term limits.

The new, more radicalized era is enthralling to the president's supporters. To them, Chávez is keeping the promise he has consistently made over eight years in office -- to reorganize Venezuelan society, redistribute its wealth and position the country as an alternative to U.S. capitalist policies.

"This is a moment that could be key in the history of Latin America," said Joanna Cadenas, 36, a teacher in the state-run Bolivarian University. "I never thought you could love a president."

But the moves -- which opponents say are marked by intolerance and strident ideology -- are prompting some Venezuelans to leave the country and others to prepare for a fight in the last battlegrounds where the opposition has influence. A few are trying, against the tide, to remain apolitical in a country marked by extreme, even outlandish rhetoric.

"What we're seeing happen here is not good," said José Manuel Rodríguez, 42, an accountant seeking travel documents at the Spanish Consulate. "What we see here is the coming of totalitarianism, fewer guarantees, fewer civil rights. I want to have everything ready to leave."

Chávez's moves are worrying Bush administration officials, who have voiced concern over the ideological nature of nationalization plans that have targeted companies such as CANTV, the dominant provider of fixed-line telephone service, and the utility Electricidad de Caracas, both of which have stakeholders in the United States. U.S. officials have also expressed concern that the government will not renew the broadcast license of RCTV television, which Venezuelan officials charge supported a short-lived coup against Chávez in 2002.

"We should all be concerned about the direction President Chávez is taking his country," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, said in a statement this week. "Any leader who tries to tighten his grip on power by destroying the institutions of democracy, curtailing press freedom and using his office to intimidate pro-democracy opponents is setting in motion a dangerous process with potentially ominous consequences."

Venezuelan government officials argue that the president's moves are the will of the people and that his latest electoral victory is a mandate for Chávez to deepen what he calls his Bolivarian revolution.

"We cannot disqualify Hugo Chávez as social leader who, with the support of big majorities, makes decisions," said Haiman El Troudi, a former chief of staff to Chávez who now works at the International Miranda Center, which is funded by the government. "I don't see people moving forward against this. I see the same old opposition groups."

El Troudi, the author of a book about the kind of companies that should make up the 21st-century socialism that Chávez extols, said the government will move quickly to transform the country into a mixed economy of state firms and private ones, "but with conditions." He said that politically and economically, Venezuela is steadfast against capitalism.

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