In two weeks, Venezuela could be starting an extraordinary experiment in centralized socialism fueled by oil. By law, the workday would be cut to six hours. Street vendors, housewives and maids would have state-mandated pensions. And President Hugo Chávez would have significantly enhanced powers and be eligible for re-election for the rest of his life.
A new constitution, expected to be approved by referendum Dec. 2, is both bolstering Chávez's popularity among people who will benefit and stirring contempt from economists who declare it demagoguery. Signaling new instability here, dissent is also emerging from among his former lieutenants, some of whom say the president is carrying out a populist coup.
"There is a perverse subversion of our existing Constitution under way," said General Raúl Isaías Baduela, a retired defense minister and former confidant of Chávez's who broke with him this month and defected to the political opposition. "This is not a reform," Baduel said in an interview. "I categorize it as a coup d'état."
....One of the 69 amendments to the Constitution would allow Chávez to create new administrative regions, with rulers called vice presidents chosen by him. Critics said the reforms would also shift funds from states and cities, where a handful of elected officials still oppose him, to communal councils, new local governing entities that are predominantly pro-Chávez.
Interviews this week on the streets here and in Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, offer a window into the strength of Chávez's followers and the challenges of his critics. His supporters, many of whom are public servants in a bureaucracy that has ballooned in size since he came to power, have flooded poor districts to campaign for the overhaul.
....In comments after a summit meeting of Latin American leaders this month in Chile, Chávez laid out his project in simple language: "Capitalist Venezuela is entering its grave and socialist Venezuela is being born."