NYTimes: Venezuela faces political standoff.

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at SPAMhotmail.com
Fri Sep 3 14:40:43 MDT 1999




CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A week after defiant lawmakers staged a bold
operation to retake their chambers from a constitutional assembly that was
disbanding Congress, the standoff has yet to be solved.

But the opposition-controlled Congress has backed away from direct
confrontation with the assembly, which is packed with supporters of
President Hugo Chavez. And it appears the real question is not if this South
American nation's legislature will die, but how.

Nobody in Venezuela questions that the legislature -- along with the Supreme
Court and many local governments -- is being abolished by Chavez's ``social
revolution,'' which is promising new, more democratic institutions.

But when the constitutional assembly effectively shut down the legislature
last week before a new constitution was approved -- and before any blueprint
for new legislative elections -- cries went out that a coup d'etat was
underway.

The conflict came to a head last Friday, when violent street clashes erupted
between supporters and opponents of Chavez, the wildly popular former coup
leader who took office earlier this year promising to shake up the country's
establishment.

Alarmed by international headlines warning of dictatorship in the world's
third-largest oil exporter, Chavez himself this week asked assembly
delegates to moderate their actions and devote themselves to their original
purpose: writing a new constitution for Venezuela.

Both lawmakers and assembly delegates said Friday they were negotiating an
agreement that would allow the legislature to exist in some form while the
new constitution is being written. But there was no word on whether those
talks, which have recessed until Monday, would bear fruit.

Chavez supporters captured 121 of the assembly's 131 seats in national
elections on July 25. Despite a Supreme Court decision in April limiting the
assembly's duties to writing a new constitution, the panel has usurped the
powers of both Congress and the Supreme Court.

In an apparent effort to calm tensions, the assembly has held off on plans
to take over unions and selected state and local governments. Still, both
those measures are possible in the coming days.

The National Guard is still keeping members of the opposition-controlled
Congress from even entering the capitol building.

Through all this, support for Chavez remains strong. His popularity ratings
are around 70 percent, and on Thursday, 5,000 of his backers marched through
Caracas to express support for his ``revolution.''

The country's traditional political parties -- blamed for squandering the
world's largest oil reserves outside the Middle East -- have long had a
colossal image problem. Outside Venezuela, however, it's now the Chavez camp
that's being seen in a bad light.

The constitutional assembly spent most of this week discussing that issue,
with many delegates blaming the international media for what they said was a
smear campaign against Venezuela.

But Alfredo Pena, Chavez's former chief of staff and now an assembly member,
urged his colleagues to exercise moderation because the world is watching.

``We can't be blaming the media, demonizing the media, as if they were
responsible,'' Pena, a former journalist, told The Associated Press.

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