Venezuela Poised to Hand Chávez Wide-Ranging Powers

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.

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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