Wilson Romero has a clear-cut opinion about the "peaceful revolution" set in motion here by President Hugo Chavez. Asked about Chavez's controversial move to supplant a hostile Congress with a friendly constituent assembly, Romero pointed approvingly to an anti-litter banner trumpeting: "The New Venezuela Puts Garbage in its Right Place."
To the delight of Chavez -- and to the dismay of the establishment politicians who have long run Venezuela -- Romero's disdain for the national legislature is shared by vast numbers of Venezuelans. Many of this country's 23 million people appear eager for the seismic political change promised by Chavez after four decades of corrupt and inefficient government that have left a nation with rich oil deposits mired in deep and widespread poverty.
Judging from a number of interviews over the last several days, they have no patience with warnings that Chavez, a former army lieutenant colonel, is engaged in a power grab with little respect for constitutional niceties -- or even a soft coup d'etat that threatens to return Venezuela to the dark days of its 1940s and '50s dictatorships. Recent opinion polls show that Chavez, who was elected overwhelmingly six months ago, still enjoys an approval rating of about 70 percent.
"The assembly is trying to clean up the country, but the dirt is not going easily," said Romero, 50, who sells newspapers and snacks from a downtown kiosk. "The [constituent] assembly was elected by the people, and it is now time for Congress to go and to respect what Venezuelans have decided for their homeland."
"The Congress has done nothing but help the thieves of government to the embarrassment of our country and the detriment of the poor people," said Victoria Briceno, 47, who was one of several hundred Chavez supporters who demonstrated today outside the legislature building. "It is time to rescue our freedom and livelihoods, and Chavez will help."
The United States, for which Venezuela is the leading source of imported oil, has been less supportive. Washington has voiced concern several times, urging Chavez not to stray from legality in his attempts to revamp the political system and get the constituent assembly -- elected with a strong pro-Chavez majority last month -- to write a constitution more to his liking.
State Department spokesman James Foley said today that the situation in Venezuela is a matter of "growing concern" in Washington, and he expressed hope that "all parties will come to agreement about how to exercise power . . . and to assure the establishment of a constitution that preserves Venezuela's long-standing democratic tradition."
"We have been very mindful of the fact that Venezuela has, through legal means, embarked on constitutional change," he added. "And this is not a matter for the United States to intervene upon; it's a matter for Venezuelans to determine their own future themselves."
Business leaders in Venezuela and abroad have displayed similar concerns. Investment here has dropped by about 40 percent since last year over concerns about how Chavez will run the country, and since he took office in February, more than a half-million jobs have been lost in a deep recession.
Chavez's radical reform drive has embroiled Venezuela in a particularly tumultuous round of brinkmanship over the last week, as the opposition-controlled Congress tried to defy an emergency decree issued by the constituent assembly that bars legislators from passing new laws and limits other parliamentary functions. The tumult broadened today as the 131-member assembly approved a new decree empowering it under certain conditions to handle current legislative business, as well as other traditional congressional functions, until new legislative elections are held early next year.
Under the decree, a congressional steering committee that handles legislative affairs during Congress's summer recess -- as well as key finance and comptroller panels it oversees -- will continue to function in a limited capacity. But the assembly can assume their powers should they delay or fail to perform their duties. The assembly is also planning to limit the functions of state legislatures and is discussing similar controls on state governors and municipalities.
The move by the recently installed assembly -- the engine behind Chavez's radical reform program -- was a response to legislators' threats over the weekend to withhold approval of two foreign trips Chavez is scheduled to make Tuesday and Saturday -- trips the assembly has since sanctioned -- and to delay action on several key budgetary matters.
"By making the decision to assume these [legislative powers], we are not usurping any of Congress's powers; we are assuming a responsibility that they were irresponsibly abandoning," said the constituent assembly's president, Luis Miquilena.
In a last-ditch effort to rescue congressional powers through legal avenues, Henrique Capriles, president of the Chamber of Deputies, petitioned the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the assembly's decree. "In Venezuela, are there institutions, or not? Is there an existing legal framework, or not?," he asked.
The Supreme Court voted 10-5 last Tuesday to support the assembly's decisions to give itself extensive powers to fire judges and other court officials and to overhaul Venezuela's troubled judicial system. The outcome of the vote prompted the resignation of the court's president, Cecilia Sosa, and generated predictions today that Capriles's petition will fail.
Chavez, 45, a cashiered army officer who led a failed coup in 1992, won election by a landslide on a promise to make a "peaceful revolution" that would end Venezuela's longstanding economic problems. His ascendancy ended four decades of domination by Venezuela's two main parties, Democratic Action and the Social Christian Party, which are largely controlled by the nation's economic and political establishment.
Chavez's electrifying campaign vows to combat entrenched corruption and redirect Venezuela's oil wealth toward its poor majority catapulted him to victory. Oil accounts for more than 70 percent of Venezuela's export earnings, and many of the country's poor feel cheated out of the profits from it.
But clearly, not everybody agrees with Chavez and the assembly majority, whose members include his wife, brother and several people who took part in his coup attempt.
Timoteo Zambrano, head of Democratic Action's congressional faction, declared that his party would not accept the conditions of the assembly decree, and Alberto Franceschi, one of a half-dozen opposition members in the assembly, said after today's vote: "The Congress has been reduced to an invalid."
Outside the halls of Congress, more than a few Venezuelans agreed. "What they are doing right now is too traumatic," said Greta Calderon, 27, a resident of a middle-class neighborhood in the municipality of Vargas. "There is no reason to do away with Congress; it has been part of Venezuela for the longest time."
Staff writer John Lancaster in Washington contributed to this report.