CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez denied that his left-leaning government would seize private property — such as second homes or expensive cars — from the wealthy and called on Venezuelans not to fear his accelerated push toward socialism.
"Nobody should allow themselves to be imbued with fear. If anybody should be scared, we should be scared of capitalism, which destroys society, people and the planet," Chavez said Sunday during his weekly television and radio program "Hello President."
But Chavez also warned political opponents that "nothing would stop" the progress of what he calls "21st-century socialism," saying a majority of Venezuelans want to gradually move away from capitalism.
Chavez recently announced plans for a "luxury tax" targeting second homes, art collections and expensive cars that would be aimed at redistributing wealth to the poor. But some fear he could go even further by seizing such assets as he advances his Bolivarian Revolution — a political movement named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Noel Alvarez, president of the Consecomercio chamber representing roughly 200,000 small- and medium-sized businesses, said Monday that many of Venezuela's business owners are still not sure how the socialist economic model Chavez aims to establish will affect them.
"We don't know where we are going and I'd like to believe the president of the republic, but what is said today isn't necessarily what will be done tomorrow," Alvarez said during an interview on the local Televen TV channel.
Chavez denied that he is following the example of Cuban leader Fidel Castro by attempting to steer oil-rich Venezuela toward Cuba-style communism, as many government critics allege.
"Those who say that I'm following Fidel's guidelines have no idea what historic processes are," said Chavez, adding that his government sees Castro as a "moral, ideological and political reference."
During a live broadcast from a cattle ranch on the outskirts of San Carlos, a small city along the sun-baked plains of central Venezuela, Chavez inaugurated a series of "socialist formation centers," where he said Venezuelans will study socialist ideals while undergoing job training.
"As Christ said, socialism extols love between us," said Chavez, urging Venezuelans of all social classes and political leanings to embrace "the socialism that we are going to create with all our efforts, our minds, our hands and our hearts."
As workers on a 740-acre farm milked cows and showed Chavez how they produce cheese, the president asked them about their daily lives, warned against the evils of capitalism and called on them to forge socialism through the creation of a "new man."
Opponents claim Venezuela is slowly sinking into authoritarianism under Chavez, whom they accuse of seeking to establish himself as a lifelong leader like Castro.
Chavez rejects allegations that he is a threat to democracy, but the leftist leader has raised concerns by repeatedly saying he wants to continue governing Venezuela until 2021 or longer and proposing a constitutional reform that would allow indefinite re-election.
Venezuela's Constitution, drafted in 1999 by an all-powerful assembly packed with Chavez's political allies, currently allows for two consecutive presidential terms.
Chavez said the constitutional reform should also include legislation permitting the suspension or removal of city mayors and state governors who fail to fulfill promises to their constituents.