Venezuelans vie to rewrite Constitution

Francisco Sosa has spent most of his life as a street vendor in a Caracas slum selling apples, used books, ice cream, and clothes. Now he has a grander goal: helping to write a new Constitution for Venezuela.

Mr. Sosa is among the hundreds of politicians and ordinary Venezuelans who are running for a seat in a constituent assembly that will write a new magna carta - the centerpiece of President Hugo Chvez's governing agenda.

In a national referendum on April 25, about 92 percent of voters backed Mr. Chvez's proposal to form a constituent assembly. They'll return to the polls July 25 to elect the 131 assembly members and should vote again early next year on whether to approve the redrafted writ.

Critics warn that Chvez may use the assembly to broaden his own power. In an attempt to keep the process from falling into opposition hands, Chvez accepted the resignations last week of his chief of staff and four ministers - all of whom will run for the assembly.

Venezuela is alive with debate about the Constitution, from villages in Amazon rain forests to slums in Caracas. An irreverent new play called "Re-Constitution" is the hottest ticket in town.

Grass-roots groups, unions, and professional organizations are nominating candidates, plotting campaign strategies, and writing proposed amendments. These run from eliminating sexist language in the Constitution to choosing local judges in elections.

The nation has had 25 constitutions since independence 188 years ago. Critics say adopting No. 26 will do little to address the country's fundamental problems, but to others, the process is a shining example of democracy at work.

"It's the first time in 500 years that the people have been asked what they want," said Sosa as he sat in his tiny street stall.

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