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Chavez proposes eliminating limits on presidential re-election

President Hugo Chavez called for sweeping changes to Venezuela's constitution Wednesday night, proposing reforms that would eliminate current limits on his re-election and extend presidential terms.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called for sweepingchanges to the country's constitution Wednesday night, proposing reforms that would eliminate current limits on his re-election and extend presidential terms.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says presidential terms should be extended from six to seven years, although he denies he wants lifelong power as his opponents allege ((Fernando Llano/Associated Press))

Chavez, speaking to the National Assembly, also proposed ending the autonomy of Venezuela's Central Bank, which would give him access to billions of dollars of foreign reserves. He also called for increasing the government's power to expropriate private property before getting a court's approval.

The self-styled revolutionary said presidential terms should be extended from six to seven years, though he denied he wants lifelong power as his opponents allege.

"I propose to the sovereign people the seven-year presidential term, the president can be re-elected immediately for a new term," Chavez said. "If someone says this is a project to entrench oneself in power. No, it's only a possibility, a possibility that depends on many variables."

If approved, the reform of the constitution would be Chavez's most radical step yet in his drive to transform Venezuela along his vision of socialism. Since winning re-election to a new six-year term in December, he has aggressively advanced that goal, nationalizing the oil, telecommunications and electricity sectors.

Critics accuse Chavez of seeking to remain as president for decades to come, like his close friend Fidel Castro in Cuba. Many fear he is steering the oil-rich South American nation toward Cuba-style communism.

"Chavez is seeking to reduce the territory held by the opposition and give his intention to remain in power a legal foundation," said Gerardo Blyde, an opposition leader and former lawmaker.

He said many other reforms are likely to be "red capes" like those used by a bullfighter "to distract Venezuelans from his real objective."

Chavez, a former paratrooper commander who was first elected in 1998, denies copying Cuba and insists that personal freedoms will be respected. He and his supporters say democracy has flourished under his administration, noting he has repeatedly won elections by wide margins.

Chavez pushed through a new constitution in 1999, shortly after he was first elected. He said the charter must be redrafted so that Venezuela's capitalist system "finishes dying" to make way for socialism.

The Venezuelan leader's political allies firmly control the National Assembly, which is expected to approve the reform plan within months. The plan then would have to be approved by citizens in a national referendum.

His proposals also included creating new types of property that would be managed by co-operatives, reducing the workday to six hours and creating "a popular militia" that would form part of the military.

Civilian militias

Chavez, who constantly warns the U.S. may someday invade the country, already has begun training neighbourhood-based civilian militias. Government opponents say he is trying to create the means to suppress dissent and defend his presidency at all costs.

Although Chavez proposed formally ending the Central Bank's autonomy, he already has appointed political allies to its board of directors and they have allowed him to remove several billion dollars from the reserves into social programs.

Critics of the transfers say they undermine the Venezuelan currency and harm the country's standing in international financial markets.

Outside the National Assembly, crowds of cheering red-clad supporters held flags and signs reading: "Yes to the reform, on the path to 21st Century Socialism." Giant video screens were set up and folk music blared from sound trucks near a two-storey-tall inflatable figure of Chavez.

Hours earlier, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington that the United States would wait for details of Chavez's proposal before commenting on it. He added that Chavez in the past "has taken a number of different steps … that have really eroded some of the underpinnings of democracy in Venezuela."

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