The Miami Herald
January 18, 2007
Venezuelan lawmakers moved toward allowing President Hugo Chávez to rule by decree for 18 months, advancing his effort to assert greater control over the government.
CARACAS - Venezuela's legislature on Thursday gave initial approval to a bill giving President Hugo Chávez extremely broad powers to rule by decree for 18 months on a wide range of social, political and economic issues.
Chávez has called the measure ''the mother law of revolutionary law'' -- the legal basis for furthering the turn to the radical left that he undertook after his Dec. 3 landslide election to a second six-year term.
A similar law in 2000-2001 allowed the president to issue 49 decree-laws, which triggered a bitter three-year political conflict and saw Chávez briefly ousted in a 2002 coup.
Opponents say Chávez's leftward turn seems likely to include severe curbs on political and economic freedoms. He already controls virtually all major institutions in Venezuela, from the high courts to the electoral authority.
Chávez has promised that his next set of decrees will drastically reshape Venezuelan society. And although the published text of the measure is limited to generalities, a much more detailed version obtained by The Miami Herald gives Chávez extremely broad powers likely to become highly contentious.
''We're going to seek special powers for a set of revolutionary laws that must have a much greater impact than those we introduced with the enabling law of 2001,'' Chávez said last week.
The new enabling law was given initial approval after a four-hour discussion in the National Assembly, where all 167 seats have been held by Chávez supporters since the opposition boycotted the last legislative elections in 2005, alleging that the electoral deck was stacked against them. A second and final approval is expected next week.
MOVING FURTHER LEFT
The measure covers 10 broad areas, including fundamental reforms of the political and economic systems to bring both into line with Chávez's doctrine of ''21st century socialism.'' In recent days the president has, for the first time, declared that his ideology is inspired in part by communists Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilich Lenin.
In the version available to the public via the Assembly's website, www.asamblea nacional.gov.ve, the section dealing with economic and social affairs comprises eight lines promising the adaptation of existing legislation to ``the construction of a new economic and social model.''
However, the equivalent section of the document obtained by The Miami Herald contains 14 paragraphs. Among other things, the president would be authorized to issue decrees ''developing the concept of social and collective property'' and "simplifying the procedures in matters of expropriation.''
National Assembly members confirmed their version of the measure under consideration is the same as a version obtained by The Miami Herald, but not the one posted on the legislature's website.
Others were less concerned. The assembly's second vice president, communist Roberto Hernández, said the constitution only required that the ''general outline'' of the law be made public. "When it is published in the official gazette [after its approval], the text will be known.''
Another paragraph likely to arouse controversy is one that allows the mobilization of the armed forces, ''without the declaration of a state of exception.'' Retired Gen. Raúl Salazar, who was Chávez's first defense minister, said the section suggested the government would ''probably begin to give the armed forces some policing functions,'' under the president's direct control.
In the area of public finance, the measure would give Chávez virtually unlimited powers to obtain and spend public money, without even the limited oversight now provided by an obedient parliament. He has already obliged the central bank to hand over more than $20 billion from its foreign reserves to a ''development fund'' that he controls.
Foreign investors, and the private sector in general, already are alarmed at Chávez's recent radical turn, including his Jan. 8 announcement of plans to nationalize the electricity and telecommunications industries. But the details of the enabling law are likely to heighten those fears.
Also part of the enabling law are sections designed to ''rationalize'' bank profits and allow ''new types of association'' [presumably workers' cooperatives] to engage in banking and insurance, as well as new and tighter regulations on foreign investment.
''The business and investment climate in Venezuela is rapidly deteriorating,'' said economist Orlando Ochoa.
Chávez also has formed a commission to study and recommend constitutional changes, including unlimited presidential reelection and the elimination of parts of the current 1999 constitutions where ``the oligarchy, the counterrevolution, managed to infiltrate their concepts.''