Venezuela's Chavez sworn in for third term
CARACAS, Venezuela - President Hugo Chavez echoed Fidel Castro's cry of "socialism or death" as he was sworn in for a new six-year term on Wednesday, promising to accelerate Venezuela's transformation into a socialist state.
Chavez took the oath of office at the National Assembly after a sweeping re-election victory that has given him free reign to pursue more radical changes, including plans to nationalize power and telecommunications companies.
His right hand raised, Chavez declared: "Fatherland, socialism or death -- I swear it," invoking the Cuban leader's famous call to arms.
Chavez also alluded to Jesus, saying: "I swear by Christ -- the greatest socialist in history."
In a speech that followed, he said the central aim of his term that runs until 2013 will be "to build Venezuelan socialism."
"I don't have the slightest doubt that is the only path to the redemption of our peoples, the salvation of our fatherland," Chavez told lawmakers to applause. He said he believes that socialism -- not capitalism -- is the only way to guarantee well-being not only for Venezuela, but the world.
He said a commission was being formed to oversee proposed constitutional reforms, including one that would allow "indefinite re-election" by doing away with presidential term limits that bar him from running again in 2012.
Referring to critics' claims the action showed he was a tyrant or doing the bidding of Castro, Chavez said, "The important thing is that the people will make the decision, because nothing can be done without that here." He has said in the past that Venezuelans should decide in a referendum.
Chavez also said he would ask the National Assembly, solidly dominated by his allies, for special powers allowing him to enact a series of "revolutionary laws" by decree.
He scolded leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the Organization of American States for criticizing his decision not to renew the license of an opposition-aligned television station.
Addressing Venezuela's top Catholic prelate, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, Chavez said he could not understand why the church supported Radio Caracas Television, which Chavez accuses of subversive activities aimed at ousting him.
"Mr. Cardinal," Chavez said, "the state respects the church. The church should respect the state. I wouldn't like to return to the times of confrontation with Venezuelan bishops, but it's not up to me. It's up to the Venezuelan bishops."
With oil profits booming and his popularity high, Chavez seems to be in step with many Venezuelans even as spooked investors rushed to sell off Venezuelan stocks in the affected companies after his nationalization announcement Monday.
Chavez attended a ceremony earlier Wednesday at the tomb of Simon Bolivar, the South American independence hero who is the inspiration of Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution" movement. He then rode in an open car, blowing kisses and waving to supporters who tossed rose petals, to the National Assembly, where he was sworn in by the body's president, Cilia Flores.
Some lawmakers shouted "Viva socialism!" after the ceremony.
Chavez, an admirer of the 80-year-old Castro, has said he is crafting a new sort of "21st century socialism" for Venezuela. Critics say it is starting to look like old-fashioned totalitarianism by a leader obsessed with power.
"They want to nationalize everything. This is the beginning," said Marisela Leon, a 47-year-old engineer who said she might consider leaving the country because she sees difficult times ahead.
The U.S. government has expressed concern about Chavez's vaguely defined nationalization plans, which he has said also include bringing under state control four lucrative oil projects now run by foreign companies in the Orinoco River basin.
But most of Chavez's largely poor supporters remain optimistic. Miguel Angel Martinez, a 52-year-old street vendor, said the president "has dedicated himself to studying communist, socialist and democratic models and has taken the best of those models."
Orlando Vera, a 63-year-old window washer, said nationalization makes sense for companies that serve the public interest. "Everything the man is doing is good," he said, adding that his economic situation has improved under the Venezuelan leader.
First elected in 1998, Chavez has cemented his popularity by using a bonanza in oil profits to set up state-funded cooperatives and fund social programs from subsidized grocery stores to free universities.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted three weeks before Chavez was re-elected on Dec. 3 found 62 percent of those asked supported nationalizing companies when in the national interest -- a result that paralleled Chavez's victory with nearly 63 percent of the votes.
But that support also has its limits. The poll found 84 percent said they oppose adopting a political system like Cuba's, despite Chavez's reverence for Castro.
Chavez, who was traveling to Nicaragua later Wednesday to attend the inauguration of fellow leftist Daniel Ortega, said he does not aim to copy Cuba's system.
But he ended his speech by repeating the phrase that Castro made famous: "Toward victory always! Fatherland, socialism or death! We shall prevail!"