Venezuela May Remove Presidential Term Limits

Venezuela's congress gave unanimous preliminary approval to proposed changes that would eliminate any presidential term limits. Final approval is expected in two or three months after which the changes would go to voters in a referendum.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Now to Venezuela and proposed constitutional reforms there that would give President Hugo Chavez the possibility to govern for decades to come. Venezuela's congress yesterday gave unanimous preliminary approval to proposed changes that would eliminate any presidential term limits. Final approval is expected in two or three months, after which the changes would go to voters in a referendum.

Joining us on the line is Julie McCarthy, NPR's South America correspondent.

Julie, what exactly would this reform do and how would it work?

JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, it extends Venezuela's presidential term from its current six years to seven years. Effectively, that means that Mr. Chavez would be in office until 2013. He then would be entitled to seek reelection perpetually. Chavez says these changes, this overhaul, will accelerate his socialist-inspired transformation of Venezuela.

Now, he already has a firm grip on the courts, the state oil company, and every state government but two. And critics say removing limits on his terms is one more step in the accumulation of what they call autocratic power mimicking Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Now, you know, Mr. Chavez says to his critics who say he wants to rule for life, hang on there, nothing guarantees I'd win reelection. This is a democracy and winning reelection is full of all kinds of variables.

YDSTIE: Hmm. I understand that Mr. Chavez has some other constitutional reforms in mind, as well.

MCCARTHY: Yeah, some pretty major ones. One of them, approved yesterday, is an end to the autonomy of the Central Bank. Now that would give Mr. Chavez access to billions of dollars of the bank's reserves. The reforms would also expand state powers of expropriation.

This year, Mr. Chavez nationalized the largest private telecommunications company, took control of a major stake in several huge crude oil projects that prompted a rupture with Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips, who decline to keep pumping under those less profitable terms. But Mr. Chavez has spent large amounts of Venezuela's oil wealth on social programs: literacy, health, education, cooperatives that would manage large private farms that he's breaking up. And that sort of state spending on the poor is without precedent in Venezuela, and it's made President Chavez enormously popular among a broad section of society. And he says he needs these changes to push this overhaul of society even further.

YDSTIE: So how is President Chavez's attempt to consolidate his power going down in the rest of the region?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, the whole idea of eliminating term limits runs counter to the trends throughout Latin America, where after a generation of military dictatorships, governments have been careful to curb the temptation for their leaders to stay around too long. But the continent, I'd have to say, mainly has kept its counsel on this one, with countries essentially saying it's an internal matter; that's Venezuela's business, not ours.

YDSTIE: Thank you, Julie.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

YDSTIE: NPR's South America correspondent, Julie McCarthy.

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