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Saturday, August 28, 1999 Published at 05:57 GMT 06:57 UK

World: Americas

Venezuelan power struggle boils over

Police turn water cannon on demonstrators

Opposition members of Venezuela's Congress have been barred from entering parliament by supporters of President Hugo Chavez amid violent clashes over his plans for sweeping political reforms.

The BBC's Peter Greste: ''The most violent clashes since Mr Chavez came to power''
The Congress members were trying to convene in defiance of an order from the new constitutional assembly which has stripped it of most of its powers including the right to meet.

Thirty people were injured as police fired tear gas and water cannon to break up clashes between supporters and opponents of the president outside the Congress building.

In a speech on national television, President Chavez described the incident as a provocation.

[ image: Lawmaker Tibisay Velasquez climbs over the fence, her ID pass in her mouth]
Lawmaker Tibisay Velasquez climbs over the fence, her ID pass in her mouth
He declared that his controversial attempts to reform the country's political system did not threaten democracy.

The Congress members twice tried and failed to break through a police cordon surrounding the parliament building.

When they returned the second time they were blocked by supporters of the president wielding sticks and bottles.

Representative Julio Castillo, of the opposition Project Venezuela Party said the legislature was declaring itself in permanent session. He accused the Chavez government of engaging in "repression".


The demonstrations followed a week in which Congress and the courts have been stripped of most of their functions by the constitutional assembly.

[ image: President Chavez:
President Chavez: "There's no authoritarian process here."
In his television address, Mr Chavez said his government had no intention of trampling on civil liberties.

"The world must know that in Venezuela the rule of law is not being damaged and will not be damaged...there is no authoritarian process here," he added.

However, demonstrators outside the parliament accused the president of leading Venezuela towards dictatorship.

And they renamed Venezuela's highest court the "Supreme Court of Injustice".


The assembly, which was elected last month to re-write Venezuela's constitution, is controlled by supporters of Mr Chavez, who has pledged to fight political corruption.

Journalist Raymond Colitt: "There is no balance"
On Wednesday, it stripped the Congress of virtually all its powers and ordered it to suspend sessions.

The decree restricts Congress to passing budgets and some administrative duties.

In Washington, the State Department said it was "deeply concerned" at the move to strip Congress of its powers, saying it was crucial that fundamental principles of democracy were preserved.

The move came despite a Supreme Court ruling that the assembly was elected to do nothing more than re-write the constitution.

[ image: Protesters clash with Chavez supporters]
Protesters clash with Chavez supporters
Opposition politicians - who control Congress - described the assembly's decree as a coup against one of Latin America's oldest democracies, and said Mr Chavez was using the body to assume dictatorial powers.

"Now there is no constitution, there is no Supreme Court and there is no Congress," said Jorge Olavarria, one of six opposition delegates in the 131-seat constitutional assembly.

'Peaceful revolution'

South American legal experts have described the assembly's actions as a serious intervention in Venezuela's sovereign institutions.

But Mr Chavez says the reforms are necessary to rid the country of corruption and begin what he calls a "peaceful revolution" by removing the remnants of the old political elite.

More than half the country's 23 million population live in poverty, despite the fact that Venezuela is said to have larger oil reserves than any country outside the Middle East.

Our correspondent says opinion polls indicate that between 70% and 80% of Venezuelans back Mr Chavez's campaign.

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