by Jeremy McDermott *
The Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has anointed himself president for life by proposing sweeping changes to the country’s constitution.
Setting out his plans for completing his socialist revolution in the oil-rich Latin American nation, he proposing radical constitutional reform which has at its centre indefinite re-election for himself.
In a rambling televised speech reminiscent of his close ally and friend Fidel Castro, Mr Chavez told the national assembly of 33 changes he plans to make to the constitution he introduced in 1999 which will cement his grip on power.
“We have broken the chains of the old, exploitative capitalist system,” said Mr Chavez. “The state now has the obligation to build the model of a socialist economy.”
The proposals will be debated by the 167-seat assembly, which is unlikely to be particularly heated or drawn out as it is 100 per cent “Chavista” after the opposition boycotted the 2005 elections. Once the assembly has rubber stamped the proposals, they will be put to a referendum.
Mr Chavez is unlikely to struggle in is bid to win the referendum as he has spent millions of dollars in oil revenue in enlarging his power base by bolstering the ranks of state employees and introducing cheap imported goods into shops.
While the president was talking about “the death of capitalism” in Venezuela, the opposition were lamenting what they called the death of democracy.
“The president just tells lies,” said Manuel Rosales, the opposition leader defeated in last year’s presidential elections. “All he wants to do is turn himself into president for life.”
In the new constitution Mr Chavez, 54, scraps the maximum presidential incumbency of two six-year terms, to instead permit seven-year terms with indefinite re-election.
“There are many lies circulating in the world, about a dictatorship in Venezuela, about a concentration of power in Venezuela,” the president said, insisting that the new constitution realised “a transfer of power to the people”.
Part of the “transfer of power” will divide Venezuela into federal districts, with power lying in the hands of “communal councils” allied with “worker co-operatives”.
The opposition believes that mayors and governors will become impotent as central government will channel funding only to its appointed loyalists in federal positions.
A key strut of the new constitution will be a six-hour working day, which will hit Venezuela’s already wobbly private sector, battered by expropriations, nationalisations, price fixing and currency controls – which have already affected British investment in the country.
The changes will make Venezuela yet more dependent on its oil sector, which thanks to high oil prices and some of the largest reserves outside the Middle East, ensures Mr Chavez is awash with “petrodollars”.
The armed forces, which have already adopted the salute “Fatherland, socialism or death”, will have their mission enshrined as being “patriotic and anti-imperialist” in their defence of Venezuela against the United States, which considers Mr Chavez a threat to its influence in the region.
As Mr Chavez’s speech drew to a close he said: “I doubt there is any country on this planet with a democracy more alive than the one we enjoy in Venezuela today.”
* Latin America Correspondent