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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)

El Troudi also acknowledged that the government needs to better woo the 4 million Venezuelans who voted against Chávez and now feel they have no political representation. "These 4 million people are not oligarchs, and they don't represent the ideas of the oligarchy," he said.

Still, Chávez's own rhetoric, in daily speeches that can last hours, are filled with invective against opponents and the Americans, giving the former paratrooper the air of what prominent Mexican author Carlos Fuentes calls "a tropical Mussolini."

Even some of Chávez's allies have raised eyebrows over some of his plans. The president has formed a coalition, the United Socialist Party, to unite the numerous parties in the National Assembly -- all of them pro-government. But the leaders of bigger, well-established parties such as the Communist Party and Podemos are balking, at least for now.

In a recent meeting for leaders of Podemos, one delegate, Pedro Peraza, said that although support was strong for folding into the president's party, Podemos needed to be cautious. "Things cannot be that way, that it's all about what the president says and that we just follow along," Peraza said. "That would be like communism."

Despite concern voiced by several Podemos members, the president of the party, Ismael García, said that the dissolution of his party was only a matter of time. Asked if folding Podemos and other parties wouldn't give Chávez too much power, García cited the widespread support the president enjoys.

"We're not turning over anything to anybody," he said. "The president has won this through his prestige, his worth as a leader, his courage."

Chávez's boundless energy, and broad ambitions, have hardly slowed plans that include putting a satellite into space, sending 100,000 poor Venezuelans on vacations to Cuba and purchasing 4,000 tons of Bolivian coca, once the drug crop is manufactured into flour and other products. Even in a country now long accustomed to Chávez, the pace of the changes is hard to keep up with.

"We thought 2007 would be a time for change, a time for constitutional reform, but we never thought one month after the election we'd see a creation of a sole party, the shutdown of RCTV, the nationalization of CANTV and the electricity of Caracas, and the announcement of a new political map of Venezuela," said Julio Borges, an opposition leader.

Rigoberto Lanz, a prominent intellectual who is an adviser in the government's Science and Technology Ministry, said the size of Chávez's ever-expanding government has done little to curb what he called the two most serious "enemies" of the Chávez administration, corruption and bureaucratic inertia.

And while Lanz and others are working to empower Venezuelans, he said, there is not a mechanism for people's wishes to be reflected in major policy moves, such as nationalizing companies. Among Chávez's plans are communal councils, funded by oil revenue, that would give ordinary people decision-making powers. "We're still far from the big decisions being made by the people," Lanz said.

A recent survey done in Venezuela by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Washington polling firm, showed that a strong majority of Venezuelans were against the plan to eliminate presidential term limits and the decision not to renew RCTV's license. Venezuelans also said it would be preferable if the opposition had more power. And a vast majority said Chávez, known for his pugnacious attitude, should be more conciliatory toward the opposition.

"It suggests Chavistas are uncomfortable with some of this and, more importantly, it shows that Chávez is misinterpreting his mandate," said Mark Feierstein, a political adviser with the polling firm who helped oversee the survey.

Perhaps surprisingly, some in the opposition see this moment as a time for optimism. Once badly fragmented and discredited, they believe they could find adherents as Chávez tries to inject socialist dogma into schools, as he has promised to do, or replace municipal governments with community councils.

"Our job is to present alternatives, and then we need to organize and make people conscious," said Leopoldo López, the opposition mayor of Chacao, an affluent district of Caracas. "I'm not despondent. The lack of hope is the worst enemy we have."

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