CARACAS, Venezuela : Adopting what Hugo Chavez once dubbed "the mother of revolutionary laws," Venezuelan legislators on January 31 gave him broad extraordinary powers to speed up the country's transformation to socialism.
At an outdoor session in downtown Caracas packed with his red-shirted supporters, the National Assembly unanimously approved a so-called "enabling law" that allows the Venezuelan president to rule by decree for the next 18 months on everything from energy policy to gun control.
Critics said the new law concentrates even more power in the hands of Chavez, who already controls the military, the legislature, the courts and government watchdog agencies. Debate will be curtailed and opposition muted to a long list of controversial laws that Chavez is likely to decree, they argued."Chavez is considering radical changes that many people oppose, so he wants to avoid public debate," said Maria Gabriela Guevara, a human rights expert at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. "We're seeing a tendency of this government to be less accepting of plurality and debate."
An editorial in the opposition daily Tal Cual went even farther, comparing the National Assembly's move to the German Reichstag's decision in 1933 to give Hitler extraordinary powers. The front page carried the banner headline: "Heil Hugo!"In Washington, President Bush said he's "concerned about the Venezuelan people."
"I am concerned about the undermining of democratic institutions. And we're working to help prevent that from happening," Bush told Fox News.At Bolivar Plaza, located next door to the colonial-style Congress building, the National Assembly session resembled a boisterous street fair.Under a white tent, musicians strummed guitars, shook maraccas and crooned folk songs. Street vendors sold copies of the nation's constitution. A handful of Chavez supporters held up signs declaring: "Socialism is democracy."
Because of an opposition boycott of the last legislative election, all 167 members of the National Assembly are loyal to Chavez. There were no dissenting voices on January 31when the deputies stood up, one by one, to address the crowd and extol the virtues of ceding their authority to the president."This is what we were elected to do: to accelerate the revolution," said Fernando Vasquez, a lawmaker. Another, Roberto Hernandez, said, "Critics say we are giving Chavez dictatorial powers. But he will decree laws that will benefit the majority of Venezuelans."
Chavez was re-elected last December with 63 % of the vote. Most of his support comes from the country's poor. About 38% of Venezuelans live below the poverty line, and Chavez, flush with petrodollars, has increased spending for social programs during his eight years in power.Chavez has promised to bring about what he calls "21st century socialism" to the country, the world's fifth-largest oil producer.One provision of the enabling law allows him to bring privately operated petroleum and natural gas projects under greater state control.
Last month, Chavez indicated that he would use his new powers to give the state-run oil company operating control of lucrative heavy oil projects in the Orinoco River basin in central Venezuela. The projects are now run by private firms such as Houston-based ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Chevron Corp.Chavez also has announced plans to nationalize telecommunications and electricity companies and scrap the constitution's term-limits provision that would force him from power in 2013.
Venezuela's constitution, drawn up after Chavez was first elected in 1998, permits a president to rule by decree, as did the previous constitution. Past presidents, like Carlos Andres Perez and Jaime Lusinchi, issued laws by decree, but only for short periods and then for financial matters in times of economic upheaval.These days, many analysts said, there is no crisis or compelling reason to give Chavez such extraordinary powers. What's more, his new powers pertain to nearly all aspects of government.
Chavez can dictate measures to decide on security and defense matters. He can transform state institutions, impose new taxes, overhaul banking and financial regulations and forge a new economic and social policies to bring about what he calls "the equal distribution of wealth."Vice President Jorge Rodriguez said Chavez would likely use his new powers to approve between 40 and 60 laws.In Bogota, Colombia, the top American diplomat for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, told reporters that the enabling law isn't anything new in Venezuela.
"It's something valid under the constitution," Shannon, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said, according to the Associated Press. "As with any tool of democracy, it depends how it is used.""At the end of the day," he said, "it's not a question for the United States or for other countries, but for Venezuela."