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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Chavez says he's ready to transform Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez says nothing can stop him from swiftly transforming Venezuela into a socialist state, and he faces few obstacles now that a crushing re-election win has given him free reign to pursue more radical changes.

His first big move -- to nationalize "strategic" power and telecommunications companies -- heralds a series of planned "revolutionary laws" that remain vaguely defined. But with oil profits booming and his popularity high, Chavez appears to be in step with a majority of Venezuelans even as spooked investors dumped shares in the affected companies.

"Everything the man is doing is good," said Orlando Vera, a 63-year-old window washer, on Tuesday, adding that his economic situation has improved under Chavez. As for nationalization, Vera said it makes sense for companies that serve the public interest.

Chavez, an admirer of Fidel Castro, says he is crafting a new sort of "21st Century Socialism." Critics say it is starting to look like old-fashioned totalitarianism by a leader obsessed with power.

"They want to nationalize everything. This is the beginning," said Marisela Leon, a 47-year-old engineer who said she might consider leaving the country because she sees difficult times ahead.

In Washington, White House press secretary Tony Snow suggested Venezuela was making a mistake. "Nationalization has a long and inglorious history of failure around the world. We support the Venezuelan people, and think this is an unhappy day for them."

But optimism reigns among Chavez supporters like Miguel Angel Martinez, a 52-year-old street vendor, who says the president "has dedicated himself to studying communist, socialist and democratic models and has taken the best of those models."

Chavez, who will be sworn in Wednesday for a third term that runs until 2013, also told Venezuelans on Monday that he will ask the National Assembly for special powers allowing him to enact a series of laws by decree.

"We're heading toward socialism, and nothing and no one can prevent it," he said.

Chavez, first elected in 1998, has cemented his popularity by using a bonanza in oil profits to set up state-funded cooperatives and fund social programs from subsidized grocery stores to free universities.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted three weeks before Chavez won re-elected on December 3 found 62 percent supported nationalizing companies when in the national interest -- a result that paralleled Chavez's victory with nearly 63 percent of votes.

But that support also has its limits. The poll found 84 percent said they oppose adopting a political system like Cuba's, despite Chavez's reverence for Castro.

The nationalization move appeared likely to affect the telecommunications company C.A. Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela, known as CANTV, the country's largest publicly traded company.

Chavez last year threatened to nationalize CANTV, which was privatized in 1991, unless it fully complied with a court ruling and adjusted pension payments to current minimum-wage levels.

Dozens of CANTV retirees who were blocking a Caracas avenue outside a courthouse in protest on Thursday cheered Chavez's move, saying they now have hopes of being paid what they are owed.

"The one who guarantees us a future is the Venezuelan government," said Jose Chacon, a leader of the retirees.

Venezuela's electricity sector is largely state-run already, and it was not clear if the decision would affect the capital's energy provider, Electricidad de Caracas, which has never been government-run and is owned by Arlington, Virginia-based AES Corp.

The nationalization moves seem to be a throwback to past efforts that were complete failures, opposition politician Teodoro Petkoff said. What is really on display, he said, is the "autocratic power" of a president who can act without checks and balances.

During the election campaign, Chavez said he would seek constitutional reforms including scrapping presidential term limits, which bar him from running again in 2012. Chavez also said Monday that he wants a constitutional amendment to strip the Central Bank of its autonomy.

Bank director Domingo Maza Zavala, a critic set to retire soon, told The Associated Press that it is important for the Central Bank to make decisions independently to support sound monetary policy, especially in containing inflation.

"Why a Central Bank without autonomy? That isn't conceivable anywhere in the world," Maza Zavala said.
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