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Venezuelans Protest Against Chavez

September 9, 1999

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Several thousand people marched through downtown Caracas on Thursday to demand that Venezuela’s powerful new Constitutional 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, and accused President Hugo Chavez of leading the South American country into authoritarian rule.

``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.

Chavez, who as a lieutenant colonel led a failed 1992 coup attempt, has come under fire from critics who say he is trampling Venezuela’s constitution. The Constitutional Assembly, a body created in July to write a new constitution, has virtually shut down Congress and this week started a purge of the notoriously corrupt judicial system.

The assembly also is 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.

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, though he blamed ``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.

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