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Hugo Chávez moves ahead with elected dictatorship

By Andres Oppenheimer, The Miami Herald

Writing from Venezuela last month, I suggested that leftist populist President Hugo Chávez would behave like an altar boy for a few months if he won the Aug. 15 referendum, and then unleash his totalitarian instincts as soon as world attention turned elsewhere. I was wrong: The change happened much sooner. Last week, amid still-to-be-proved opposition charges that he stole the Aug. 15 vote, an influential pro-Chávez legislator in Congress announced a push for an amendment of the Venezuelan Constitution that would allow Chávez to be reelected ad infinitum, much like Cuba's president-for-life Fidel Castro.

Chávez, who has said he wants to remain in power until 2021, has remained noncommittal about the constitutional amendment, saying it's something to be decided ``later on.''

The constitutional changes proposed by pro-Chávez legislator Luis Velásquez Alvaray and endorsed by Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement leader William Lara would change Article 230 of the constitution, which states that the president serves a term of six years and ''can be reelected immediately for a new term, only for one time.'' The text would be modified to eliminate the words ``and only for one time.''

As reported by the Caracas daily El Nacional, the explanatory section of the bill says that it's the sovereign right of the people ``to be able to extend [the president's term] for the consecutive periods it deems convenient or necessary for the interests of the country. No law, and much less one of constitutional rank, can put obstacles to such exercise of sovereignty.''

The proposed constitutional amendment comes after two Chávez-backed legislative proposals that are likely to be passed by Congress shortly: a new press law putting restrictions on what private television networks can say, and a separate national police law that would create a national police force, thus stripping opposition mayors from running their cities' police forces.

Earlier this year, Chávez already took what may be the most dangerous step toward an ''elected dictatorship'': He expanded the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 members, stacking it with his loyalists. Now, a solidly pro-Chávez Supreme Court will be the ultimate judge on issues such as Chávez's reelection and press censorship.

Government critics say Chávez is behind the bill to amend the constitution. But Chávez-backed National Assembly President Francisco Ameliach took distance from the project late last week, suggesting that the pro-Chávez camp is, at least in public, divided over the issue. On Friday, I called the man who probably knows Chávez best: Luís Miquilena, his former mentor, campaign chief and interior minister. Miquilena, who quit in 2002 as the undisputed No. 2 in the Chávez government, told me from his home in Caracas the 1999 Constitution drafted by Chávez and Miquilena ``is becoming a nuisance to Chávez.''

Miquilena, a former Communist Party leader who took Chávez under his wing after the 1992 coup attempt, says Chávez may not have ordered his congressman to draft the bill, but he is giving him his tacit approval.

''It's a trial balloon, aimed at creating the necessary climate for a third reelection,'' Miquilena said. ``A move like that needs a lot of lobbying, and Chávez is probably letting this proposal float to see how it goes, and act accordingly.''

I agree. It has been Chávez's pattern to allow his supporters to propose controversial moves, then embrace them if they fly, or disown them if they don't. Chávez takes two steps forward, and then -- when the world cries foul -- one backward.

But overall, he's moving forward with his authoritarian project, which despite benefiting from an unprecedented oil-income bonanza has left Venezuela poorer, with greater unemployment, more divided and more dependent on his political handouts than when he took office five years ago.

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