Caracas, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez called for radical changes to Venezuela's constitution Wednesday night, proposing reforms that would eliminate current limits on his re-election and extend presidential terms.
Chavez, speaking to the National Assembly, said presidential terms should be extended from six to seven years. But the self-styled revolutionary who is seeking to transform Venezuelan society along socialist lines denied he wants lifelong power as his opponents allege.
"I propose to the sovereign people the seven-year presidential term, the president can be re-elected immediately for a new term," Chavez said. "If someone says this is a project to entrench oneself in power. No, it's only a possibility, a possibility that depends on many variables."
Chavez also proposed ending autonomy of Venezuela's central bank, which would give him access to billions of dollars from the banks reserves, creating new types of property that would be managed by cooperatives and creating "a popular militia" that would form part of the military.
"They accuse me of making plans to be in power forever or to concentrate power. We know it isn't like that. It's power of the people," Chavez said earlier Wednesday. "So many lies in the world. I doubt there is any country on this planet with a democracy more alive than the one we enjoy in Venezuela today."
Critics accuse Chavez of seeking to remain as president for decades to come, like his close friend Fidel Castro in Cuba. Many fear he is steering this oil-rich South American nation toward Cuba-style communism.
Chavez, a former paratrooper commander who was first elected in 1998 and re-elected to a new six-year term in December, denies copying Cuba and insists that personal freedoms will be respected. He and his supporters say democracy has flourished under his administration, noting he has repeatedly won elections by wide margins.
Chavez pushed through a new constitution in 1999, shortly after he was first elected. He said the charter must be redrafted so that Venezuela's capitalist system "finishes dying" to make way for socialism.
The Venezuelan leader's political allies firmly control the National Assembly, which is expected to approve the reform plan within months. The plan then would have to be approved by citizens in a national referendum.
Opponents, meanwhile, attacked the reform plan.
"Chavez is seeking to reduce the territory held by the opposition and give his intention to remain in power a legal foundation," said Gerardo Blyde, an opposition leader and former lawmaker.
Crowds of red-clad supporters cheered outside the National Assembly, holding flags and signs reading: "Yes to the reform, on the path to 21st Century Socialism." Giant video screens were set up, and folk music blared from sound trucks near a two-story-tall inflatable figure of Chavez.
Hours earlier, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington that the United States would wait for details of Chavez's proposal before commenting on it. He added that Chavez in the past "has taken a number of different steps ... that have really eroded some of the underpinnings of democracy in Venezuela."