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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 December 2006, 05:03 GMT
What comes next for Venezuela?
By Greg Morsbach
BBC News, Caracas

Now that the dust has settled after President Hugo Chavez's landslide victory, there is much speculation as to how Venezuela will change in the next few years under his leadership.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez
Chavez has been engaging in long-term thinking

Mr Chavez has openly talked of his third term in office as "a new phase" in his long term project for the Latin American country.

He has made no secret during or after his election campaign that his "Bolivarian Revolution", named after the 19th century South American independence leader Simon Bolivar, is heading towards socialism.

In the next 14 years, Mr Chavez wants to turn Venezuela from a capitalist into a socialist society.

The strategic roadmap to help him do that has already been drawn up and is called "The Simon Bolivar National Plan".

A pro-Chavez member of parliament, Carlos Escarra, told the BBC he has been appointed personally by Mr Chavez to prepare sweeping reforms of the nation's constitution.

Name change

Mr Escarra, who is now part of a presidential commission on constitutional reform, said: "One of the proposals is to change the name of our country from Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to Socialist and Bolivarian Republic.

"This would better reflect the changes that are happening here. But there are also more basic changes to our constitution that are being planned.

"For example, we want to eliminate the old, bureaucratic structures of the state and replace them with grass roots institutions."

A mural of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in an office in Caracas

Mr Chavez has often talked of how he intends to stay in power until the year 2021 to implement his socialist project.

To remain in office for that long, Mr Chavez and his followers want to change the constitution in order to remove the limits on how many times he can be re-elected in succession.

"That's definitely part of the plan for next year," said Hector Navarro, a senior director for Mr Chavez's election campaign team.

"Remember that President Chavez was re-elected by a wide margin. So that gives him the popular mandate and legitimacy to make big changes."

However, any changes to Venezuela's constitution must first be approved with a two-thirds majority in parliament, and then in a nationwide referendum.

But this should not pose too much of a problem for Venezuela's left-wing leader as parliament is entirely run by his loyalists and a large segment of the population is on record as supporting him.

Constitutional reform

December 2007 has been touted as a possible date for a referendum on the constitution, giving the president plenty of time to prepare the details and seek popular support.

There will be other changes in addition to the constitutional reform, according to many respected analysts.

Most predict that Venezuela's private economy will disappear as we know it.

Orlando Ochoa, a leading economist, forecasts that the free market economy will be replaced by a socialist model where the state will have much greater control over the private sector.

"The state will regulate prices and profits in the private sector," Mr Ochoa said.

Transformations

Alberto Garrido, an independent analyst, is certain that in the next 14 years parts of the economy will simply vanish.

"Private health care and private education will be first in line to be scrapped by the government as part of its drive towards socialism," said Mr Garrido.

"The whole country will be geared towards the motto: one leader - one party - one ideology," he added.

One proposal that is on the table for next year is to create a single political party to represent the Chavistas, the name given to Mr Chavez's supporters.

Remember that President Chavez was re-elected by a wide margin. So that gives him the popular mandate and legitimacy to make big changes

Currently there are a string of parties supporting Mr Chavez - each with their own leaders and party hierarchy.

In terms of foreign relations it is almost certain that the Chavez government will opt for continuity: there is very little appetite in Caracas for a rapprochement with Washington and the Bush administration at present.

Despite the best efforts of the State Department to build bridges following his election victory, there was a frosty reception from Venezuela's firebrand leader.

He dismissed Washington's diplomatic overtures as "insincere".

"They sometimes hold an olive branch out to us. But there are always strings attached. And we, as a sovereign state, cannot accept conditions," Mr Chavez told reporters here at a recent news conference.

However, senior Venezuelan diplomats privately admitted they could envisage a completely different relationship with a Democrat in the White House, particularly with somebody from the Clinton family.

No scrutiny

Venezuela's Deputy Foreign Minister for North American Affairs, Jorge Valero, told the BBC "in the next few years, there will be a lot more cooperation between our government and the nations of the southern hemisphere".

Venezuela is also trying to substitute the US with China as its number one commercial partner.

"The idea for the next few years for Venezuela to sell all the crude oil it presently shipping to the US to the Chinese instead," said Alberto Garrido.

The ultimate goal is to become completely economically independent from the US because Mr Chavez does not want to be a leader who is at the beck and call of the political and economic establishment of North America.

He does not wish to have his democratic credentials, his style of government and his socialist project scrutinised internationally.





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