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Which fork in road will Venezuela take?

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Last Sunday, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez Frias demonstrated again the depth and breadth of his popular support. His candidates won 96 percent of the seats in the new Constituent Assembly, which will rewrite the country's Constitution.

The elections did not, however, resolve the main questions about Mr. Chavez's six-month-old government. Is he, as his supporters claim, setting the stage for a genuine renewal of Venezuela's discredited political system and a restoration of confidence in government? Or is he leading Venezuela down the path toward authoritarian rule, as his detractors assert? Can his advisers effectively manage Venezuela's complex, oil-rich economy or should we expect a continuing deterioration in the nation's fortunes? Finally, how should the US be managing its relations with Venezuela, which is now its main oil supplier.

There is little disagreement that politics in Venezuela had reached a dead end before the election of Chavez. Indeed, the overwhelming vote for Chavez - who as a young colonel seven years earlier had launched a failed military coup - affirmed the breakdown of the country's old political order. Ordinary citizens held government and established political parties in largely deserved contempt. Few Latin American countries were more poorly, or more corruptly, governed, and none lost more ground economically in the past generation. No one can seriously dispute that Chavez's election was a call for fundamental change, for a clean sweep and a remaking of Venezuelan politics.

What is in dispute is whether the Constituent Assembly will promote democratic change, or serve as prelude to a concentration of power by Chavez? There are reasons to be concerned about his commitment to democracy. His rhetoric is bombastic and intimidating. He's shown disdain for Congress and the courts, and regularly threatens to ignore them. He's stated, despite legal rulings to the contrary, that the new assembly will have the authority, not only to redraft the constitution, but to close parliament and the judiciary, and to take over their roles.


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