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    Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may well go down in history as a brilliant tactician. Each time after he threatens his political adversaries, Chavez backs off and announces his willingness to reach a compromise. The opposition has generally reacted by breathing a sigh of relief and accepting the President's olive branch. However, Chavez has not lost sight of his goal: the revolutionary transformation of the nation's political system.

         Chavez holds the establishment parties responsible for the entrenched privileges and corruption that have characterized Venezuelan democracy since its outset in 1958. Most important, official incompetence and party patronage doomed the plans for the state to spearhead industrial development. Thus, the state-run steel and aluminum complexes built largely by the oil windfall money of the 1970s were touted at the time as the road for third world countries to follow. The companies, however, were run into the ground. Over the last two years, Venezuela attempted to sell them off but the multinationals, wary of the heavy debts, padded employee rolls and pending ecological obligations, offered Venezuela but a pittance.

         Chavez first raised the banner of a new constitution to revamp the nation's ossified democracy when he staged an unsuccessful coup in February 1992, and again when he won the presidential election last December with 56 percent of the vote (see "Man of the People," March 21, 1999). His broadside attacks against the establishment parties struck a responsive chord, particularly among underprivileged. Upon taking office, Chavez decreed elections for a constituent assembly to rewrite the 1961 Constitution, which in many ways privileged the political parties. On July 25, Chavez's "Patriotic Pole" coalition won almost all of the 131 seats in the assembly.

         With an absolute hold over the assembly, the Chavistas were set on dissolving Congress, a bastion of the traditional political parties. In its first month, the assembly circumscribed the power of the Congress and state legislatures. It also oversaw the review of 3130 cases of formal denunciation of judges, which had been set aside over the years. They kicked off their work firing 8 of them, promising dozens of more dismissals to come.

         On August 27, several hundred members of Democratic Action (AD), the largest opposition party, accompanied a group of congressmen attempting to hold an emergency session of Congress against the wishes of the Chavistas. Singing their party anthem and chanting, "AD is in the streets, and we're not afraid," they clashed with Chavez's followers near the national capitol.

         At the time, the New York Times , echoing reports in the U.S. media in general, editorialized that the constituent assembly was "trying to take over the functions of government." The Times concluded: "It is hard to see how the Jacobin decisions of Mr. Chavez and the assembly will help Venezuela." State Department spokesmen, after having refrained from criticizing Chavez since his election, also warned of grave threats to the separation of powers in Venezuela. Chavez reacted by calling the Times piece a "gigantic lie," while one of his party's major leaders suggested that it was designed to pressure Venezuela into kowtowing to the U.S. The Constituent Assembly decided to investigate an international campaign to blur Venezuela's democratic image.

         Chavez eventually retreated. In early September, he advised his followers in the Constituent Assembly to negotiate with Congress. In doing so, the assembly agreed to recognize congressional powers and to refrain from removing governors and mayors accused of corruption. On Sept. 21-22, Chavez met with President Clinton in New York and spoke at the United Nations and the Organization of American States, where he talked of "nation al consensus," a term indicative of his turn to moderation.

         A number of hard-liners in the Constituent Assembly--including ex-military rebels who had supported Chavez in a second coup attempt in November 1992 -- criticized the President's turnabout. Chavez responded that, given the recent electoral blows received by the establishment parties, further attacks were superfluous. What was important was getting down to the business of drafting the new constitution, which is to guide Venezuela into a new era of participatory democracy.

         As part of this new tack, Chavez ordered his followers in the assembly to concentrate efforts in the commissions rather than the plenary sessions, where delegates are prone to lofty statements lashing out at the establishment. The delegates are considering several models of government. Regardless of which is chosen by the assembly and subsequently ratified by the people in a national referendum, they each represent a clean break with the old system of rule by party bosses.

         One model would establish a powerful executive branch. Various proposals point in this direction: allowing for the immediate re-election of the president, extending his term from five to six years in office, creating a vice president or prime minister beholden to the president, and providing the executive branch with a veritable majority on the national council in charge of supervising elections.

         Strengthening the presidency is a reaction to the preponderance of bureaucratically run parties that have been unresponsive to the needs of the people. Chavez's style of frankness and direct contact with the people, as well as his frequent and lengthy television appearances, lends credibility to the presidential model. "Venezuela has never had a President like this," says Alejandro Silva, a pro-Chavez assembly delegate. "People now go to Miraflores [the presidential palace], and although they don't always get a chance to see Chavez, their grievances are recorded.. And what most impresses them is that there is a follow-up. One of the President's men actually gets back to them."

         A second model, underpinned by the concept of "popular sovereignty," would allow the people to elect and remove judges, the attorney general and other figures whose job is to combat corruption and defend human rights. A consensus exists among delegates in favor of instituting popular referendums, not only to decide matters of prime importance, but to recall elected officials. Luis Diaz, a top leader of Chavez's "Fifth Republic" party, pointed out: "Under the old democracy, 10 or 15 city councilmen or state legislators forced a mayor or governor out of office. It's the people who should have the final word."

         A third model, which is supported at least in theory by the parties of the ruling coalition, would transfer power from the central and state governments to the municipal level. "It isn't practical to hold elections for everyone and everything," says Nelson Rampersad, a leading member of the pro-Chavez Movement Toward Socialism Party. "Decentralization has to reach the localities where civil society constantly interacts with the state." By example, he notes that Supreme Court judges should be selected on the basis of merit by a national council chosen by university law schools and lawyers associations, rather than be elected or named by the parties.

         Many sectors of the population are prodding the assembly to incorporate their rights and benefits in the constitution. Street peddlers and other members of the "informal economy," for instance, have gathered in front of the capitol, where the assembly meets, calling for their inclusion in social security and other worker programs. Similarly, the Indian population, which chose three assembly delegates in special elections, is pushing for official recognition of their native languages and dual citizenship for those who live on the Colombian or Brazilian border.

         Mobilization and participation is theoretically what Chavez's brand of democracy is all about. But the expectations and demands set in motion by Chavez's movement are a double-edged sword. The real danger is that the relatively weak parties that back Chavez will not be able to contain the tremendous pressure unleashed from below. The resultant political convulsions could lead in any number of undesirable directions.

         Chavez's charisma is what enabled him to displace political party rule. But the President is racing against time. A new political system must be created and rules laid down before the opposition regroups or Chavez's glamour wears off. In addition, the Venezuelan economy has been victimized by uncertainty regarding the future, which has scared off private investments. In the face of these imperatives, Chavez is pressuring for the ratification of the new constitution before the year is out. If all goes according to plan, Venezuelans will greet the new millenium with a clear break with the past in the form of a novel democracy. Northeast Research Associates Pie in the Sky Farm 93 Dwinell Road United States doing some building for the people, they Marshfield, Vermont