CARACAS, Venezuela – Soldiers used tear gas, plastic bullets and water cannons to scatter tens of thousands who massed Thursday to protest constitutional reforms that would permit Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely. Led by university students, protesters chanted “Freedom! Freedom!” and warned that 69 amendments drafted by the Chavista-dominated National Assembly would violate civil liberties and derail democracy. It was the biggest turnout against Chavez in months, and appeared to revive Venezuela’s languid opposition at a time when the president seems as strong as ever. Students promised more street demonstrations over the weekend, but no opposition-led protests were planned for Friday.”This is a dictatorship masked as democracy,” said Jorge Rivas, an 18-year-old student. “Chavez wants our country to be like Cuba, and we’re not going to allow that to occur.”
Chavez, the first democratically-elected president in Venezuelan history, took office in 1998, and has been on a steady course of eroding any chance for democracy since.
……Changes to Venezuela’s constitution will be put to a national popular referendum toward the end of this year. Voters will be asked to ratify a slate of amendments recently approved by Venezuela’s National Assembly. The changes were proposed by President Hugo Chávez.
Along with articles that would extend social welfare benefits are changes that would extend the president’s term in office and allow him to run for re-election. Mr. Chávez already controls the National Assembly through his Socialist Party as well as Venezuela’s Supreme Court. And he has taken steps to undermine Venezuela’s independent media and legitimate political opposition. By giving him the power to name vice presidents in charge of the country’s provinces, the constitutional changes would also allow him to extend his control over local governments in Venezuela.
So what happens if the people decide, by popular vote, to refuse Chavez’ plans for a complete dictatorship? It’s hard to feel sympathy for the countries in Central and South America. They went from brutal ancient tribes, to a see-saw style of government; swinging from extreme right wing authoritarian to extreme leftwing totalitarian. The one consistency is an iron fist. They don’t seem to be able to settle on anything else.
……Leftist president Hugo Chavez took office in 1999, pledging political and economic reforms to give the poor a greater share of the country’s oil wealth. A constituent assembly was formed to rewrite the constitution in July 1999, followed by the creation of a constitutional assembly made up of Chavez’s allies that replaced the democratically elected Congress. Chavez’s assumption of greater power prompted charges that he is establishing a left-wing dictatorship.
Chavez was reelected to a six-year term in July 2000. Troops were called in to quell serious protests over the election in several cities. In 2000 Chavez visited other OPEC countries, becoming the first foreign head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. He is close to President Fidel Castro of Cuba, which receives Venezuelan oil at reduced prices.
In Dec. 2001, business and labor organizations held a work stoppage to protest Chavez’s increasingly authoritarian government. In April 2002, tensions reached a boiling point as workers reduced oil production to protest Chavez’s policies. Following a massive anti-Chavez demonstration during which 12 people were killed, a coalition of business and military leaders forced Chavez from power. But international criticism of the coup, especially in Latin America, and an outpouring of support from the president’s followers returned Chavez to power just two days later. After the coup, Chavez remained highly popular among the poor, despite the desperate state of the economy. Venezuelan labor unions, business organizations, the media, and a good part of the military remained substantially less enchanted.
……In early 2007, Chávez took significant steps to further consolidate his power and move Venezuela closer to becoming a socialist state. In January, he announced the nationalization of major energy and telecommunications companies. Days later, the National Assembly voted to allow Chávez to rule by decree for 18 months. In May, Chávez shut down the main opposition television station, RCTV, which has been critical of the government. The National Assembly voted in August to abolish presidential term limits.
Good luck, Venezuela. You’ll need it.