CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's congress is often criticized for ignoring the business of the country as legislators don Arab keffiyehs to taunt Israel or gaze at photos of topless women — supposedly in the name of breast cancer research.
In reality, the National Assembly has become a key force in cementing President Hugo Chavez's socialist agenda, potentially changing Venezuela for decades to come. The opposition holds none of the 167 seats, though a dozen lawmakers have broken ranks with Chavez over what they call his growing authoritarianism.
So far this year, legislators have cleared the way for the government to seize more private property and oil companies, stripped power from opposition elected officials and approved the redrawing of voting districts that could favor the ruling party.
Protesters took to the streets this week over the latest legislative proposal to revamp the public education curriculum around "Bolivarian principles." The opposition says that amounts to socialist indoctrination; Chavez supporters say it involves teaching values such as nationalism, humanism and civic pride.
Hundreds gathered Tuesday outside the assembly in downtown Caracas, chanting "Don't mess with my kids!" One woman held a banner reading: "No to Cuban-style education!"
Chavez and his allies insist this is simply democracy at work, and even the president's opponents grudgingly concede they have no one to blame but themselves. Their candidates boycotted 2005 congressional elections over concerns about fraud and "gave the assembly to Chavez," says Luis Ignacio Planas of the opposition Copei party.
"It's true the assembly is atypical," said lawmaker Wilmer Iglesia. "Those who criticize it have a high degree of responsibility because they did not participate in the elections."
The few lawmakers who argue against Chavista projects resort to shouting when their microphones are shut off. Iglesia went one step further when his repeated requests for the floor were ignored: He grabbed a megaphone.
Any challenge to the laws the assembly passes goes to the Supreme Court, which ruling-party lawmakers have stacked with justices friendly to the government.
And in a highly polarized country, where most people are either for Chavez or against him, lawmakers rarely stray from the party line.
"The most important person in the assembly is the messenger who brings the orders from 'El Comandante,'" Planas said.