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Venezuela’s Political Standoff Ends

September 10, 1999

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ A standoff between Congress and the powerful Constitutional Assembly that saw lawmakers clawing over a fence trying to retake their chambers ended Thursday with a deal that restores Congress’ powers.

In an accord mediated by the Catholic Church, the assembly agreed to reverse an order that virtually shut down Congress last month. Congress will be allowed to resume its normal activities including its reconvening as a full body Oct. 2.

The agreement ``is a demonstration of tolerance in a democratic country that aspires to be able to carry out a process of change while respecting the law,″ said opposition Congressman Cesar Perez Vivas.

The assembly stripped Congress of most of its powers as part of a radical reform campaign being led by President Hugo Chavez to root out decades of government corruption and mismanagement blamed for squandering the country’s vast oil reserves.

The pro-Chavez assembly, which was elected in July to write a new constitution for Venezuela, has also declared itself the supreme power in the land, taking over the Congress and giving itself the right to fire judges and overhaul the judicial system

The moves have provoked fears that Chavez, who as a lieutenant colonel led a failed 1992 coup attempt, was trampling Venezuela’s constitution and edging the country toward authoritarian rule.

Two weeks ago a street melee broke out between pro- and anti-Chavez factions outside the Capitol building, and opposition lawmakers broke through the crowds and climbed over a fence to try to retake their chambers.

Earlier Thursday, several thousand people marched through downtown Caracas to demand that the assembly not take over local governments as part of its corruption-purging reforms.

Shouting ``Liberty! Liberty!,″ the protesters said any move by the assembly to assume control of local and state governments would be illegal.

``The government of Chavez wants a dictatorship in our country,″ said Orlando Ovalles, 42, a security worker in the Caracas city government. The march was led by Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma of the opposition party Democratic Action.

This week the assembly started a purge of the notoriously corrupt judicial system. It is also debating whether to declare an ``executive emergency,″ which would give it the power to oversee local governments and even to remove governors and mayors.

Chavez, who was elected president in a landslide victory last December, says he is provoking criticism because he is attacking the interests of a corrupt oligarchy blamed for squandering the world’s largest oil reserves outside the Middle East.

He contends that a referendum approved by voters in April creating the assembly instructed it to reform Venezuela’s public institutions.

Assembly leaders told foreign correspondents on Thursday that they are launching a campaign to counter what they said is the international media’s sensationalistic depiction of Chavez as a dictator.

Four assembly members, including former presidential candidate Claudio Fermin, one of only six Chavez opponents elected to the 131-person assembly, will travel to Washington and New York next week to meet with political and business leaders.

``There is no dictatorship here,″ Fermin told The Associated Press, blaming ``political infantilism″ by both anti- and pro-Chavez factions for producing ``verbal shootouts.″

Chavez himself is concerned about his image overseas, and has brought in Walter Martinez, a well-known local reporter who specializes in international news, to offer advice.

Also Thursday, the head of a national judge oversight council resigned to protest the assembly’s decision to suspend two judges _ a move she says broke the law. Only the National Judges Council has the power to suspend or fire judges, said Normarina Tuozzo.

The assembly removed the judges Wednesday after they provoked a public uproar by throwing out the charges against two dozen bankers in a 1994 banking scandal that nearly caused Venezuela’s financial system to collapse.

But assembly member Manuel Quijada insisted that the assembly acted legally, saying it has control over all other public institutions in Venezuela. ``The assembly has all the powers,″ said Quijada, the head of a special commission that is investigating the judicial system. ``We cannot continue tolerating corruption in Venezuela. The proceedings are now different.″

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