By David Abel | The Sun-Sentinel | 8/28/1999
CARACAS, Venezuela --The sting of tear gas and the force of water cannons sent thousands of protestors gasping for air near the Capitol on Friday, much as they thought democracy was gasping its last in Venezuela.
The unemployed and the well-employed took to the streets to protest a decree issued on Wednesday that stripped Congress of nearly all the power that could help it serve as a balance to the office of the president.
But when defiant legislators called an emergency meeting in a last-ditch effort to salvage their powers, they were stopped by the National Guard, a legion of red-bereted soldiers dressed for battle called out by their charismatic, controversial commander-in-chief, President Hugo Chavez.
"This finally shows the truth: Chavez wants to take all the power for himself and rid the nation of its checks and balances," said Godofredo Marin, a congressman from the Evangelical Party, which opposed Chavez and his reforms. "This was the first violent action of the dictatorship. This is the way it starts. The same thing happened in Cuba."
Friday's unrest capped a week in which the constitutional assembly, a body proposed by Chavez and ostensibly elected to revise the Constitution, limited the powers of the Supreme Court and banned the opposition-controlled Congress from passing laws and curtailed its powers to oversee the budget.Chavez supporters, including his wife, brother and five former ministers, control 121 of 131 seats in the constitutional assembly.
"The Congress has to survive; what the assembly is doing has no legitimacy," said Felix FariDnas, a congressman from the Copei Party, one of several opposition parties, in an interview before surmounting the spiked gate. "The people have elected us. And we will not stay here and watch the destruction of democracy and the institution of the Congress."
But the people elected Chavez, as well, and by an overwhelming majority. Thousands of the president's supporters also took to the streets on Friday, gathering on the opposite side of the Capitol from his critics.
Many in the crowd donned the signature red beret often worn by Chavez, a former army lieutenant colonel and paratrooper who attempted a coup in the early 1990s. They, however, were spared the tear gas and water cannons.
Chavez's supporters said they didn't fear the president's concentration of power. And they believed a strong leader was necessary to do away with years of corruption in a country where 80 percent of the people live in poverty, despite Venezuela's having more oil than any nation outside the Middle East.
"We are here to make sure they don't violate our authority," said William Lara, a Chavez supporter and member of the constitutional assembly, before soldiers allowed him to pass through the Capitol's gates. "We are the ones doing away with the dictators who have ruled for 40 years and stolen everything from the people."
Friday afternoon, Chavez took to the nation's airwaves, assuring viewers in an hourlong speech that the country was at peace and promising the constitutional assembly would continue reforming the country's laws.
He was flanked by the new president of the Supreme Court, the president and vice president of Congress, and the nation's Interior Minister.
"We have to say from Caracas to the world at large that Venezuela is not moving to authoritarianism," Chavez said."The assembly was elected to reconstruct the state. It was authorized by the majority of the state. This is as clear as water."
Still, many protesters and congressmen said they feared that the decision of the soldiers to obey the constitutional assembly instead of the Congress represented the first forceful action in the emergence of a dictator.
Although senior congressmen and leaders of the constitutional assembly said they agreed to reach a peaceful solution to the standoff after a session mediated by Venezuela's Catholic Church, legislators said they would not stand by and watch their powers disappear.
Marin and Henrique Capriles, the president of the lower house of Congress, said they intend to protest the constitutional assembly's decree to the Organization of American States and to the United Nations.
They argued the assembly violated a Supreme Court ruling in April that declared its sole mission is to write a new constitution.
"This is a direct violation of the laws that currently govern the nation," Capriles said. "The assembly has no right to make its own decisions. They need to be respectful of our institution. That's the basis for democracy."
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