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Tuesday, August 31, 1999 Published at 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK

World: Americas

Venezuelan Congress stripped of powers

Supporters of Mr Chavez gathered outside Congress on Monday

The newly elected Constitutional Assembly in Venezuela has stripped Congress of its few remaining powers - in effect shutting down the legislature.

The BBC's Peter Greste: "The Congress may just exist in name only"
The assembly, which is controlled by supporters of President Hugo Chavez, argues that the move was prompted by its quest to reform the country's corruption-riddled public institutions.

The decision follows weeks of confrontation between the assembly and Congress, with the latter threatening to stop the Venezuelan leader's trips abroad and block budget outlays.

Jorge Olavarria, Assembly Member: "The will of the people is one thing and the rule of law is another"
Critics of the president say his reforms are riding roughshod over the rule of law and paving the way for a dictatorship.

One opposition politician, Mireya Rodriguez, described the move as a coup d'etat.


[ image:  ]
Timoteo Zambrano, secretary general of the main opposition party, Democratic Action, said: "Technically, Congress does not exist. It has no authority, and as such we can say that we are standing before a dictatorship that is supported in the National Constitutional Assembly."

But assembly president Luis Miquilena said the body was acting within the law.

"The ghost of a dictatorship is light years away from the reality of our country," he said.

The decision comes less than a week after the assembly took over much of Congress's functions. The legislative branch was prohibited from passing laws or convening as a full body.

Since then, the legislature has refused to approve any foreign travel by Mr Chavez.

The latest confrontation between the executive and legislative follows clashes last Friday between supporters and opponents of the president outside the Congress building in Caracas.

'Hostage conditions'

Monday's decision has left Congress technically open but stripped of all powers.

"Congress will work under hostage conditions from now on, as I understand it," said opposition assembly delegate Alberto Francheschi after the vote.

He said members of Congress - where the opposition holds the majority - would never accept the conditions "because we have a shred of dignity. We can't work with an axe in our necks".

[ image: The Venezuelan president says he has to sweep aside corruption]
The Venezuelan president says he has to sweep aside corruption
In a last-ditch survival bid, congressional leaders filed a petition with the Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn the assembly's decree.

But several weeks ago, the assembly also curtailed the courts by appointing a special judicial commission to overhaul the entire system and sack any judge deemed to be corrupt.

The BBC's Central America Correspondent, Peter Greste, says there is now no authority to oppose the Constitutional Assembly.

The assembly was elected last month to re-write Venezuela's constitution in the space of six months.

Mr Chavez has said 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.

US fears

[ image: Riot police were called in during last week's clashes]
Riot police were called in during last week's clashes
The United States earlier expressed its increasing concern over the political confrontation in Venezuela.

State Department spokesman James Foley said the US and other Latin American countries had a stake in Venezuelan democracy.

More than half of 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.

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