CONSTITUTIONAL DICTATORSHIP IN VENEZUELA

CONSTITUTIONAL DICTATORSHIP IN VENEZUELA

December was a tragic month for Venezuela. The flooding that claimed thousands of lives was compounded by a constitutional referendum Dec. 15 that effectively ended Latin America's oldest democracy.

The natural disaster has come and gone, but the man-made damage to the political system will last much longer.The trappings of democracy and constitutional rule often serve as facades for dictatorship. That's particularly so in Latin America, where dynasties such as those of Haiti's Jean-Claude Duvalier, Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza and Argentina's Juan Peron were originally elected into power.

Now we have Venezuela, where only 45 percent of the electorate turned out to approve the new constitution submitted by President Hugo Chavez.

The new document, the 26th constitution since the country's independence in 1821, gives broad new powers to the president and socializes the entire economy of this oil-rich but poverty-stricken country.

Chavez, a former paratrooper, won the presidency in December 1998 and has since consolidated most political power to himself and his military comrades.

He relentlessly campaigns against the corruption and elitism that marked the running of Venezuela for decades. It is a tireless effort, as he says, to ''rebuild the fallen house.''

With polls showing less than 2 percent of the voters had read the new constitution, the comment of one voter perhaps summarizes best the frustrations of the average Venezuelan:

''I do not know much, if anything, about it, really. My vote is for Chavez and against the crooks who sacked the country for 40 years.''

He has a point. But in Venezuela, democracy has effectively committed suicide.

Chavez is an instinctive authoritarian-ideologue who was jailed for an armed insurrection and assassination plot against President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992.

His ideological side is a left-right messianic blend of feudalism, romanticism, militarism and socialism infused with passionate references to Simon Bolivar, the famed liberator of South America.

Indeed, according to the new constitution, the country's name will be changed to Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Other articles of the new law of the land are not quite as cosmetic. The new constitution is a made-to-measure uniform for President Chavez that practically guarantees he will face no opposition.

The constitution prohibits public financing of political parties, thus ensuring only the government will have access to those means.

The bicameral congress has been eliminated altogether and replaced by a pro-Chavez National Assembly, which can be dissolved by presidential decree.

All military promotions, formerly approved by Congress, are now at the sole discretion of the president. In short, the president is now a generalissimo.

The Supreme Court can no longer suspend or impeach the president, for any reason. The presidential term has been increased to six years and the president is now allowed to seek immediate re-election. Chavez thus is certain to spend at least 13 years in office.

Native Indian Venezuelans are recognized as a separate people and given ''property rights'' over their ''ancestral lands.'' Thus, more than 50 percent of the land of the Bolivarian Republic may be controlled by 1 percent of the population.

The economic outlook is equally grim. During the past year, Venezuela experienced a recession that shrank the economy by 5 percent and doubled unemployment to 20 percent.

The constitution, which practically eliminates the private sector, will oversee further downswings. The oil industry will remain nationalized.

All citizens will be entitled to full benefits regardless of prior payments or employment.

The state will guarantee housing, health care and retirement pensions to all citizens. Minimum salaries are guaranteed. Whole industries, such as water, are now defined as strategic and thus open to state control.

''Unjustified'' downsizing is prohibited. The central bank will lose much of its autonomy and will have to ''coordinate'' monetary policies with the government; it will be held accountable by the authorities.

Farmlands can be expropriated and redistributed in order to increase economic productivity.

All of these new rules will enlarge the role of the state in virtually every aspect of Venezuelan society. That's a recipe that usually guarantees continued underdevelopment, stagnation, corruption, inflation and currency instability.

There is more. The new constitution has its own Big Brother clauses, particularly the one that guarantees ''everyone has the right to information that is opportune, truthful and impartial.''

Historically, this usually means opinions critical of the regime are considered partial and thus unlawful.

If this wasn't bad enough, Chavez has begun foreign policies that may cause real problems for Latin America and the United States. He has intervened on behalf of Colombian rebels against their government, a situation that has raised tensions.

Internationally, he is openly anti-American. ''I feel happy to follow the path of Fidel,'' Chavez said in Havana, and in Beijing he proclaimed himself a Maoist.

It seems almost certain Venezuela's new regime means long-term trouble for all parties involved, the country itself and those around it.