Chavez Announces Reform Plans

Strengthened by his victory in a recall referendum, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search) set his sights Tuesday on centralizing power, including exerting control over the courts, local police and the nation's broadcast stations.

The leftist government is "going to deepen the social and democratic revolution in Venezuela (search)," vowed Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, the right-hand man to Chavez, who is praised by supporters for giving the poor majority better services and a voice in politics.

The opposition was in a shambles after 58 percent of voters in Sunday's referendum rejected a measure to end Chavez's term in office. Some opposition politicians insisted on demanding a recount, but others suggested they accept the defeat and move on.

Chavez said at a news conference late Monday that the victory will give his government a "catalyzing energy" to carry out its initiatives, including "completing the transformation of the judicial branch."

Congress, which is controlled by Chavez supporters, recently approved a measure allowing that body to remove and appoint judges to the Supreme Court. One Supreme Court justice has already been ousted for allegedly falsifying his resume, a charge he denied.

The government is also seeking to exert control over TV and radio stations, many of which are deeply critical of Chavez and carry one-sided news reports against him. The government plans to submit a bill to Congress that would allow the government to ban programming it sees as slanderous or an incitement to violence and to punish violators.

The government is also studying the possibility of unifying municipal and state police forces into a national police force, wresting control from mayors and governors, many of whom are Chavez opponents.

Vicente Rangel said the government "will be more audacious, more effective, destined to benefit the country's majority poor."

Chavez's drive to centralize powers has stoked worries among some critics that he intends to install a Cuban-style dictatorship, even though elections and the referendum held since he was swept to power in a 1998 vote have been free and fair.

Albis Munoz, president of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce, demanded Tuesday that the government lay out what it plans to do and insisted "that it respect private property."

Human Rights Watch (search) recently issued a statement expressing worries about the independence of Venezuelan institutions like the courts.

If Chavez goes too far in centralizing power, he risks losing popular support, some analysts say.

"There's a real risk if he misinterprets the results of the referendum. It was not an endorsement of packing the Supreme Court, jailing political opponents and restricting the media," said Mark Feierstein of Greenberg, Quinlan, Rasner Research, a Washington polling firm that had predicted Chavez's referendum victory.

Although unemployment is about 15 percent, Chavez has a strong following among the poor majority in this nation of 24 million people after pouring revenues from the state-run oil monopoly into health, education and food programs. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and has enjoyed a bonanza from record-high oil prices.

Feierstein said in a phone interview that opinion surveys indicate Chavez's support will fray among many Venezuelans if he increases his grip on other institutions and continues to attack his critics.

But the opposition is floundering following the referendum, finding itself without a leader to mount a challenge to Chavez in the 2006 elections or a platform that has broad-based appeal. Such considerations took a back seat to the recall effort, and many opposition leaders have been in denial over Chavez's huge popular support.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to Venezuelans on Tuesday to settle all issues related to the referendum "in the same civic and democratic spirit that prevailed during the voting."