Venezuela's Chavez Seeking to Change Constitution to Allow Perpetual Re-Election

President Hugo Chavez was presenting his blueprint Wednesday for sweeping constitutional changes expected to allow him to be re-elected indefinitely.

Chavez, who is seeking to transform Venezuelan society along socialist lines, announced late Tuesday that he would unveil his project before crowds of supporters at the National Assembly. He predicted it would bring renewed political upheaval to Venezuela.

Chavez's political allies firmly control the National Assembly, which is expected to approve the plan within several months. It then would have to be approved by citizens in a national referendum.

Critics accuse Chavez of seeking to become a lifelong leader, like his close friend Fidel Castro. Chavez denies allegations that he poses a threat to democracy, noting that he has repeatedly won elections by wide margins.

The Venezuelan leader predicted in a televised interview that "the immense majority of Venezuelans" would support his proposal to reform the constitution, but he also forecast a political struggle with the opposition.

"Tomorrow our great battle begins," Chavez said. "They are going to launch a campaign tomorrow to try to distort the text and the spirit of the proposal."

Dozens of government supporters wearing the red color of Chavez's party started gathering early Tuesday outside the National Assembly, where sound trucks and giant video screens were set up for the president's address.

A recently nationalized telecommunications company sent text messages to mobile phone clients inviting them to the event.

Chavez has revealed few details of his proposal, but has stressed the need to do away with presidential term limits that currently prevent him from seeking re-election in 2012.

All but a handful of the National Assembly's 167 members are Chavez loyalists.

Venezuela's Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference has complained that Chavez's reform proposals were drafted without public involvement.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday that the United States would wait for details of Chavez's proposal before commenting on it, but said Chavez in the past "has taken a number of different steps ... that have really eroded some of the underpinnings of democracy in Venezuela."

Since his re-election to a fresh six-year term in December, Chavez has alarmed opponents who allege he is headed toward Cuba-style communism by creating a single ruling party and nationalizing the oil, telecommunications and electricity sectors.

"The majority of Venezuelans don't want socialism. He wants our country to be like Cuba, and we aren't going to accept that," said Linda Dos Santos, a 30-year-old shoe store owner who fears the government might seize second homes and distribute them among the poor.

Angel Angulo, a government worker, denied the wealthy would be targeted as Chavez moves to bridge the gap between the rich and poor.

"Socialism will bring benefits to those who need it the most, but all of us can live together," said Angulo. He argued that opposition leaders oppose indefinite re-election "because they don't have any chance of being elected in forthcoming elections."

Chavez, a former paratroop commander who was first elected in 1998, denies copying Cuba and insists that personal freedoms will be respected. He and his supporters say democracy has flourished under his administration.

Chavez pushed through a new constitution in 1999, shortly after he was first elected. He says the charter must be redrafted in order to steer Venezuela away from capitalism.