Caracas: Venezuela does not intend to eliminate private property when it overhauls its eight-year-old constitution in 2007 in line with President Hugo Chavez’s vision for “21st century socialism”.
“The Bolivarian revolution, I repeat, doesn’t exclude, prohibit or have any kind of plan to eliminate private property,” Chavez said at a press conference here on 24 February, referring to his programme to transform Venezuela in honour of South America’s 19th century revolutionary, Simon Bolivar.
While preserving private property, a revised constitution would also protect “social” and “collective” property, such the nation’s oil reserves, the seventh-largest in the world, Chavez said, without giving further details.
Constitutional changes, to be drafted by a presidential committee and submitted for public approval in a national referendum later this year, are the first of “five engines” of reform Chavez has outlined for Venezuela since beginning his second term in office on 10 January.
Chavez has since used decree powers to nationalize the country’s largest telephone and electricity companies and seize a larger stake in foreign oil joint ventures.
“Private property isn’t the only kind of property,” he said. “When the Conquistadores arrived here by sea, there was social property, collective property, and everyone was the owner of everything.”
“This is a debate that should deepen,” Chavez added.
Chavez also questioned the central bank’s method of measuring inflation, which reached 18.4% in January, the highest annual rate in Latin America. The move echoes his vows to slash the bank’s autonomy, which he has called a “neo-liberal” and “perverse” concept unsuited to his vision for Venezuela.
The Venezuelan president asked for constitutional changes to grant him greater access to the country’s international currency reserves, in order to fund social programmes in case of a budget shortfall. Current law only allows Chavez to use reserves in excess of $29 billion, while the bank on 24 February has $36 billion in its coffers.
Chavez also declared that methods for measuring poverty rates, used elsewhere in the world, “aren’t valid in Venezuela”, which officially reported 39.7% household poverty at the end of 2005, according to the National Statistics Institute.
Venezuela’s current constitution, drafted and approved by referendum shortly after Chavez first took office in 1999, introduced new education, health care and environmental rights and eliminated the country’s bi-cameral legislature, creating a single assembly now entirely controlled by Chavez supporters.
Revisions Chavez proposed this year would ban the sale of state assets, designate more property as “communal”, and do away with presidential term limits, allowing for his re-election indefinitely.
Chavez dismissed US President George W. Bush’s planned trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala in March as a diplomatic offensive designed to contain him and “destined for the abyss of defeat”.
“I fully respect the freedom of other Latin American countries to receive this little gentleman,” he said, referring to Bush. “You could fill a book with the pressures the empire exerts on countries’ governments to keep them away from Venezuela. But they fail, and they’ll keep failing.”
Members of Chavez’s government met this week with US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who represents oil-rich Houston. She travelled to Caracas to assure officials they have “friends” in the newly-Democratic US Congress.
Noting her visit, Chavez said he hoped “the next government of the US will be one with which you can at least converse.”
Chavez said he was not worried by the idea that the US could boost imports of alternative fuel from Brazil, the world’s largest producer of ethanol, in order to ease its dependence on oil, including Venezuelan crude. A US tariff on imported Brazilian ethanol expires at the end of 2008.
Venezuela, which relies on hydropower to generate much of its domestic electricity, will also explore other alternatives, and may “in the future” build its own nuclear power plant, he said, without giving further details.
“I hope the US doesn’t think we’re trying to build a bomb,” Chavez added. “We already have a bomb: community councils.”