- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez was granted free rein yesterday to accelerate changes in broad areas of society by presidential decree — a move critics said propels Venezuela toward dictatorship.

Convening in a downtown plaza in a session that resembled a political rally, lawmakers unanimously gave Mr. Chavez sweeping powers to legislate by decree and impose his radical vision of a more egalitarian socialist state.

“Long live the sovereign people. Long live President Hugo Chavez. Long live socialism,” National Assembly President Cilia Flores said as she proclaimed the “enabling law” approved by a show of hands. “Fatherland, socialism or death. We will prevail.”

The law gives Mr. Chavez, who is beginning a fresh six-year term, more power than he has ever had in eight years as president, and he plans to use it over the next 18 months to transform broad areas of public life, from the economy and the oil industry in particular to “social matters” and the very structure of the state.

His critics call it a radical lurch toward authoritarianism by a leader with unchecked power, similar to how Fidel Castro monopolized leadership in Cuba.

“If you have all the power, why do you need more power?” said Luis Gonzalez, a high school teacher who paused to watch in the plaza, calling it a “media show” intended to give legitimacy to a repugnant move. “We’re headed toward a dictatorship, disguised as a democracy.”

Hundreds of Chavez supporters wearing ruling-party red gathered in the plaza, waving signs reading “Socialism is democracy,” as lawmakers read out passages of the law giving the president special powers to transform 11 areas of Venezuelan law.

Vice President Jorge Rodriguez publicly ridiculed the idea that the law is an abuse of power and argued that democracy is flourishing. He thanked the National Assembly for providing “gasoline” to start up the “engine” of societal changes.

“Dictatorship is what there used to be,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “We want to impose the dictatorship of a true democracy.”

After the vote, Mr. Chavez remained out of public view but announced plans for a press conference today at the presidential palace.

Mr. Chavez, a former paratroop commander re-elected with 63 percent of the vote in December, has said he will decree nationalization of Venezuela’s largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector, slap new taxes on the rich, and impose greater state control over the oil and natural gas industries.

The law also allows Mr. Chavez to dictate unspecified measures to transform state institutions; reform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations; decide on security and defense matters such as gun regulations and military organization; and “adapt” legislation to ensure “the equal distribution of wealth” as part of a new “social and economic model.”

Historian Ines Quintero said that with the new powers, Mr. Chavez will achieve a level of “hegemony” that is unprecedented in the nation’s nearly five decades of democratic history.

The top U.S. diplomat for Latin America said the law isn’t an issue for the United States.

“The enabling law isn’t anything new in Venezuela. It’s something valid under the constitution,” Tom Shannon, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters in Colombia.

“As with any tool of democracy, it depends how it is used,” he added. “At the end of the day, it’s not a question for the United States or for other countries, but for Venezuela.”

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