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Venezuela Reforms Raise Fears About Civil Rights


Venezuela's National Assembly is debating constitutional reforms that President Hugo Chavez says are necessary for his so-called 21st century socialist revolution. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports that critics say the reforms may threaten civil rights and give too much power to Mr. Chavez.

The 58 proposals are the latest effort by President Chavez and his supporters to reform the constitution. They say the effort aims to reverse decades of corrupt and unfair rule. The government-controlled National Assembly has already approved 33 of the measures and is expected to back the remaining ones in coming days.

One of the most controversial proposals would give the government new powers, such as suspending a person's right to due process and access to information, if the president declares a state of emergency.

Rights groups Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders say the changes would violate precedents set by the United Nations Human Rights bodies and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Earlier this year, media rights groups widely criticized Venezuela for failing to renew the license of the nation's largest television broadcaster, Radio Caracas Television, forcing it off the air. RCTV president Marcel Granier says the latest reforms pose new threats to the Venezuelan people.

Granier says the constitutional reforms threaten many basic rights in Venezuela and are a grave violation of the country's existing laws and its obligations under international treaties.

Venezuela Information Minister Willian Lara has rejected the criticism from media rights groups, saying the comments distort the reforms.

The latest proposals would alter the 1999 constitution that supporters of Mr. Chavez drafted shortly after he took power. It included changes such as extending the president's term from five years to six. The current proposals would further extend the president's term to seven years and remove term limits.

Chavez supporters say other measures will expand democracy, such as lowering the voting age to 16.

But former U.S. State Department official Roger Noriega says he believes reforms under Mr. Chavez have actually harmed democratic rights.

"When the agenda is to get elected democratically and then shred the constitutional order to reconstruct it to advance your personal, particular narrow interests, that is a problem," he said.

Noriega says Mr. Chavez also poses a threat to U.S. interests in the region through his repeated efforts to generate anti-American sentiment and complicate U.S. relationships with other Latin American nations.

In a speech in Miami last week, President Bush expressed concern about what he called the false populism promoted by some nations in the hemisphere.

But Noriega, who left the government in 2005, says he is disappointed that current U.S. officials have not done more to raise concerns about what is happening in Venezuela.

"I see tentative U.S. leadership on some of the issues," he said. "You see a march toward dictatorship in Venezuela, and very, very little said about that by the United States. That is a concern."

Venezuela's National Assembly is expected to continue debating the reforms next week. If approved, the proposals will be sent for a popular referendum in December.

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