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Chavez's plans stir concerns

Some at home are leaving, while U.S. officials question his intention to nationalize industries.

By Washington Post
Published February 4, 2007


CARACAS, Venezuela - The line forms every day after dawn at the Spanish Consulate, hundreds of people seeking papers permitting them to abandon Venezuela for new lives in Spain.

They say they are filled with despair at President Hugo Chavez's growing power, and they appear not to be alone. At other consulates in this capital, long lines form daily.

Two months after Chavez was re-elected to another six-year term by an overwhelming margin, Venezuela is experiencing a fundamental shift in its political and economic climate that could remake the country. On Wednesday, the National Assembly voted to entrust him with powers that will allow him to dictate new laws for 18 months to transform the economy, redraw the structure of government, and establish a new funding apparatus for Venezuela's oil wealth.

The moves follow announcements that Chavez's government intends to nationalize strategic industries, like telecommunications and electric utilities, and reform the constitution to end presidential term limits.

The new era is welcomed by Chavez's supporters. To them, he is keeping the promise he has consistently made over eight years in office - to reorganize Venezuelan society, redistribute its wealth and position the country as an alternative to U.S. capitalist policies.

"This is a moment that could be key in the history of Latin America," said Joanna Cadenas, 36, a teacher in the state-run Bolivarian University.

But the moves - which opponents say are marked by intolerance and strident ideology - are criticized by some Venezuelans.

"What we're seeing happen here is not good," said Jose Manuel Rodriguez, 42, an accountant seeking travel documents at the Spanish Consulate. "What we see here is the coming of totalitarianism, fewer guarantees, fewer civil rights. I want to have everything ready to leave."

Chavez's moves also are worrying U.S. officials, who have voiced concern over the ideological nature of nationalization plans.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement last week: "Any leader who tries to tighten his grip on power by destroying the institutions of democracy, curtailing press freedom and using his office to intimidate pro-democracy opponents is setting in motion a dangerous process with potentially ominous consequences."

[Last modified February 4, 2007, 01:28:33]

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