Venezuelan legislature grants Chavez decree powers

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 19, 2010; A12

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - Venezuela's lame-duck, pro-government congress has given temporary one-man rule to President Hugo Chavez, less than three weeks before a newly elected National Assembly with enough government foes to hamper some of his socialist initiatives takes office.

Congress approved laws that give the state more control over the economy and granted Chavez decree powers that permit him to rule until mid-2012 without input from legislators.

With those decree powers, which lawmakers passed Friday, Venezuela enters a new stage in Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution," in which analysts say an increasingly erratic but powerful president consolidates control over a country in deep recession.

Chavez's actions, which undermine the new legislature elected in September, have been strongly condemned by government adversaries.

"This castrates the next National Assembly," Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerrilla turned newspaper editor, said of the measures in a Saturday column. "Chavez has begun to take the path of dictatorship."

The president's supporters said the "enabling law" approved by the National Assembly allows Chavez to respond more quickly to heavy rains that have left tens of thousands of Venezuelans homeless.

The 165-member National Assembly is overwhelmingly controlled by Chavez allies, but the new congress will include 67 lawmakers who oppose him.

Speaking to supporters in a televised address Friday, Chavez left little doubt that he would use his powers to push through a range of economic and political measures that would accelerate the oil-rich country's transformation into a socialist state.

"They will not be able to create even one law, the little Yankees," said Chavez, who brands his opponents as stooges of an imperialist U.S. government. "Let's see how they are going to make laws now."

In a legislative offensive over the past few days, the assembly has reinforced the pro-Chavez Supreme Court by appointing justices aligned with the government and approved a law making it easier to nationalize banks.

Lawmakers are also pressing forward to approve laws that would control Web sites and place new restrictions on human rights groups and their ability to receive foreign funding.

In a statement, the human rights branch of the Organization of American States said the government's proposals could prohibit the media from issuing reports that "foment anxiety" or "ignore the authorities."

That arm of the OAS, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said those measures endanger freedom of expression because they are so vague.

"There's a serious concern on the part of the commission," its director, Santiago Canton, said by phone from Washington, where the group is based.

He said that the commission has repeatedly warned about deteriorating rights in Venezuela.

"Here we are again facing another legislation that will limit further the protection of human rights for all Venezuelans," he said.

The Obama administration has also voiced concern. Last week, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Chavez "seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers."

Activists opposed to the new measures said the country is gripped by uncertainty and is increasingly polarized.

Carlos Correa, who helps run the rights group Public Space, said he had to go to the hospital last week after a pro-government protester threw a traffic cone that hit him on the head outside the National Assembly.

"This is basically a small example of what is happening in the country," said Correa, who teaches at the Catholic University in Caracas.

"Look, what is happening is the dissolution of the state, a blow to the constitution, a blow that's affecting all institutional guarantees."

Chavez's initiative comes at a difficult time for his presidency, now in its 12th year.

Unlike in the rest of South America, where economies are booming because of high commodity prices and internal consumption, Venezuela's has been contracting for months despite high oil prices, which usually motor the country's economy. The country has also faced food shortages, an energy crisis and Latin America's highest inflation rate.

Elections for a new assembly in September, in which the opposition received about the same number of votes as Chavez's allies, appeared to send a signal to the president. His popularity has slipped in polls.

Alfonso Marquina, 45, an accountant who was elected to the new assembly, said the granting of decree powers signals weakness in the presidency.

"Each time he loses more popular support, he moves to consolidate his autocratic project," he said.

Speaking by phone from Caracas, Marquina said he and other newly elected legislators are fearful of being confronted by pro-Chavez groups when they arrive to take their seats in January.

"But you know what?" he said. "What I am more afraid of is to go on being afraid all of my life."

So, Marquina said, he will not be deterred.

"We will be there," he said, "and the world will be a witness if something happens to us."

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