Image: Venezuela's National Assembly
Fernando Llano  /  AP
The National Assembly, which is heavily loyal to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, approved a bill that opposition forces say will give Chavez's political party an unfair advantage in upcoming congressional elections.
updated 8/12/2009 5:17:17 PM ET 2009-08-12T21:17:17

Venezuela's congress is often criticized for ignoring the business of the country as legislators don Arab keffiyehs to taunt Israel or gaze at photos of topless women — supposedly in the name of breast cancer research.

In reality, the National Assembly has become a key force in cementing President Hugo Chavez's socialist agenda, potentially changing Venezuela for decades to come. The opposition holds none of the 167 seats, though a dozen lawmakers have broken ranks with Chavez over what they call his growing authoritarianism.

So far this year, legislators have cleared the way for the government to seize more private property and oil companies, stripped power from opposition elected officials and approved the redrawing of voting districts that could favor the ruling party.

Protesters took to the streets this week over the latest legislative proposal to revamp the public education curriculum around "Bolivarian principles." The opposition says that amounts to socialist indoctrination; Chavez supporters say it involves teaching values such as nationalism, humanism and civic pride.

Hundreds gathered Tuesday outside the assembly in downtown Caracas, chanting "Don't mess with my kids!" One woman held a banner reading: "No to Cuban-style education!"

‘Assembly is atypical’
Chavez and his allies insist this is simply democracy at work, and even the president's opponents grudgingly concede they have no one to blame but themselves. Their candidates boycotted 2005 congressional elections over concerns about fraud and "gave the assembly to Chavez," says Luis Ignacio Planas of the opposition Copei party.

"It's true the assembly is atypical," said lawmaker Wilmer Iglesia. "Those who criticize it have a high degree of responsibility because they did not participate in the elections."

It wasn't always like this.

When Chavez was first elected in 1998, the legislature was a two-house parliament controlled by the opposition. In 1999, a new constitution created a unicameral body and Chavez's allies won elections to fill it. The legislature became entirely Chavista after the opposition boycotted 2005 elections.

The few lawmakers who argue against Chavista projects resort to shouting when their microphones are shut off. Iglesia went one step further when his repeated requests for the floor were ignored: He grabbed a megaphone.

Any challenge to the laws the assembly passes goes to the Supreme Court, which ruling-party lawmakers have stacked with justices friendly to the government.

And in a highly polarized country, where most people are either for Chavez or against him, lawmakers rarely stray from the party line.

"The most important person in the assembly is the messenger who brings the orders from 'El Comandante,'" Planas said.

Chavez: ‘Accelerate the discussion’
As their first order of business this year, legislators evicted the democratically elected opposition mayor of Caracas from City Hall, stripped him of most revenue sources and gave Chavez the power to appoint a close ally to run the capital.

They then voted to bring seaports and airports under federal control, weakening opposition governors who used those tariffs to fund their budgets.

Chavez called on the assembly last month to speed up its work.

"We must accelerate the discussion and approval of revolutionary laws," he said.

Legislators followed by giving the National Electoral Council, whose directors are appointed by the assembly, the power to redraw voting districts in what critics call an attempt to gerrymander opposition parties out of their districts for next year's congressional elections. Chavez foes won key races in last year's gubernatorial and mayoral elections.

This week, the legislature is expected to take on the education bill requiring public schools to teach "the Bolivarian Doctrine" and giving Chavez-controlled neighborhood councils power over local schools. Chavez shelved a similar bill in 2001 after protesters filled the streets.

Also in the works are bills to redefine private property rights and give the government control of foreign funding for human rights organizations — such as the aid the U.S. government provides to pro-democracy groups.

‘We legislate for the people’
Of course, Chavez has the power to impose many socialist-inspired changes without asking the National Assembly at all. He has nationalized a growing list of businesses by decree, and he recently took aim at golf — a sport he identifies with elites — saying the government should take a public golf course in the city of Maracay and use it for housing.

Chavez called golf a "bourgeois sport," prompting a rebuke Wednesday from U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, a golf fan: "The suggestion by Mr. Chavez that golf, a truly global sport, is bourgeois is a mulligan. And once again Mr. Chavez, one of the hemisphere's most divisive figures, finds himself out of bounds."

National Assembly President Cilia Flores denies taking orders from Chavez, saying: "We legislate for the people." But even some pro-Chavez Venezuelans disagree.

"They're not concerned with the problems that affect the population. They seem too concerned with politics," said Liliana Gonzalez, a 45-year-old secretary who supports Chavez — but not some of the assembly's tactics.

When legislators are not approving Chavez-sponsored bills, they hold forums on the life of revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara or celebrate Afro-Venezuelan culture by dancing to drums in the chamber. In this year's opening sessions, lawmakers wore keffiyehs and raised a Palestinian flag outside the building to protest the Gaza war.

Lawmaker Hugo Marquez was seen on live television during a debate perusing images of topless women on the Internet. His defense: "I was looking at an e-mail that a friend sent me about breast cancer."

Even such embarrassments in the news media could be a thing of the past: The attorney general recently proposed legislation that would punish media that "manipulate the news with the purpose of transmitting a false perception of the facts."

Lawmakers have set aside the proposal, saying there's no need — yet — for such a law.

More on: Hugo Chavez

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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