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Chavez warns against free market

Venezuela's new constitution should reflect the teachings of South American liberator Simon Bolivar and reject free-market economics as the sole agent of development, President Hugo Chavez said Thursday in his first speech to a new constitutional assembly.

Addressing the assembly's 131 members, more than 90 percent of whom support him, Chavez said: "Watch out for the dogma of the market that pretends to be God." Instead, he said, a middle ground should be found between "the invisible hand of the market and the visible hand of the state."

The assembly, chosen in nationwide elections July 25, is charged with writing a new constitution over the next six months. Chavez has repeatedly said the assembly has the right to dissolve both Congress and the Supreme Court, which he says are products of a corrupt political culture.

The assembly convened Thursday in the space usually occupied by Congress, which declared itself in recess last week to avoid an immediate confrontation.

Chavez won the presidency in a landslide in December, seven years after trying to overthrow the government in a coup. Critics say he is concentrating power in his own hands and leading Venezuela toward authoritarian rule.

But in an interview Thursday with the Associated Press, Chavez said, "I do not have absolute power nor do I wish to have it."

During his speech, Chavez said the new constitution should create institutions that would guarantee housing, health, employment, education, justice and freedom for all Venezuelans. He also said the assembly should declare Venezuela's public institutions in a state of emergency and analyze how they can begin to respond to people's needs.

Throughout his speech, Chavez invoked the memory of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century liberation hero who freed much of South America from Spanish rule.

The president's detractors say some of the cornerstones of Chavez's agenda _ vastly increasing the military's role in society, for instance, or raising the state's profile _ are out of sync with the needs of a modern society.