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Venezuelans urge reform as they celebrate 30 years of democracy

South America's most stable democracy is celebrating its 30th birthday in a self-critical mood. ``Thirty Years of What?'' asked the headline in the Sunday supplement to El Nacional, the nation's most influential newspaper.

Venezuela has kept the military out of power longer than any other country on the continent except Colombia, which is now struggling to survive a wave of criminal and political violence.

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In Venezuela democracy is not under siege. But there is a widespread feeling that changes are overdue.

A record-level inflation rate of 40 percent and high unemployment have made Venezuelan workers and students restless. Violent student protests rocked campuses several times last year. The steel workers' union, the nation's largest, elected a radical leftist leadership in August.

A generation gap is widening. The political leaders who built democracy and still hold power are advancing into retirement age, but two-thirds of all Venezuelans are less than 25-years old.

They weren't even born when a popular uprising forced dictator Gen. Marcos P'erez Jim'enez to take a plane to Miami on Jan. 23, 1958. The country went on to overcome mutinous solders and Cuban-backed rebels.

Financed by the profits from its huge oil industry and skillfully managed by two political parties which trade power peacefully, Venezuela has consolidated a democratic tradition almost unknown elsewhere in the region.

In a special session of the National Congress Saturday, national leaders commemorated the country's accomplishments but acknowledged that much remains to be done.

President Jaime Lusinchi urged a greater effort to narrow the enormous gap between rich and poor in this oil-affluent country, whose high-rise cities are ringed by vast squatter slums holding nearly half the population.

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Wolfgang Larrazabal, the former naval officer who became a hero by organizing the first democratic election, lamented endemic government corruption. ``Corruption is one of the frustrations of the founders of the system,'' he said.

Since the first of this year, the Finance Ministry has been accused of asking for kickbacks, and authorities charged a former transportation minister with stealing at least $450,000.

But neither President Lusinchi nor Larrazabal were as critical of Venezuelan democracy as the country's normally conservative Roman Catholic bishops. Earlier this month, they issued a statement warning that the highly centralized two-party system is hardening into a cynical and corrupt ``dictatorship of the parties.''

Critics say ideological differences between the ruling Democratic Action (AD) party and the Christian Social Party (Copei) have faded into a simple struggle for power.

The bishops said in their statement that the country's underfunded courts, schools, and hospitals slide farther into crisis while greedy politicians pursue ``power and the acquisition of illegal profits'' through their network of well-placed friends in government.

The bishops urged immediate passage of a reform package proposed by a presidential commission. The commission has urged Congress to crack the power of the parties by granting Venezuelans the right to vote for individual political candidates, instead of party slates.

The commission also wants to give government regulators the right to guarantee democratic processes within the parties.

Party-slate voting assures power inside both AD and Copei of small leadership groups, inner circles known as cogollos.

Jos'e Lu'is Vethencourt, a well-known psychiatrist who helped launch a third party known as the Moral Movement, said Venezuela is under the rule of ``absolute cogollismo.''

``The excess of power has corrupted the rulers and made them stagnant,'' Mr. Vethencourt said in a recent interview.

The abuse of power was the issue when 3,000 journalists and their supporters took to the streets of Caracas last Thursday to protest government censorship. Journalists say officials regularly pressure reporters and editors to suppress unfavorable news.

A series of simmering conflicts between Dr. Lusinchi and the media turned red hot last month when secret police disguised as photographers showed up in a congressional committee hearing to photograph reporters.

The reporters were covering testimony by Lusinchi's estranged wife Gladys Castillo de Lusinchi, who went to Congress to complain that the government was blocking publication of her views about the President's efforts to divorce her against her will.

Many journalists say using the police to suppress the news media flies in the face of the country's democratic traditions. Eliezar D'iaz Rangel, a Venezuelan who heads the Mexico City-based Latin American Federation of Journalists, said there hasn't been such police interference with journalists since Venezuela overthrew a military dictatorship.

``No government in the last 30 years has used such methods to obstruct our professional action,'' Mr. D'iaz said. ``That's why there is such repugnance about this, not only among journalists but in the whole society.''

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