The New York Times
01 February, 2007
LA PAZ, Bolivia, Jan. 31 — Venezuela's legislature on Wednesday granted President Hugo Chávez the power to rule by decree for 18 months, enhancing his ability to both increase government control over the economy and assert greater personal authority over areas of society he considers crucial to his aspiration to build a socialist state.
The vote, conducted at a plaza in downtown Caracas, was carried out by a legislature in which every member is already a supporter of Mr. Chávez.
Critics of Mr. Chávez said granting him special powers moved Venezuela closer to authoritarianism.
"Heil Hugo," read the headline of an editorial published in the opposition newspaper Tal Cual that compared the measure to powers granted to Hitler in the 1930s.
Mr. Chávez's supporters were equally vehement in speaking of what they saw as a need to give the president even greater power than he already has. Cilia Flores, the president of the National Assembly, said the measure was "an instrument of the people and for the people." It will allow Mr. Chávez to enact laws without submitting his ideas to the legislature for debate and a vote.
The measure, which has been called a "law of revolutionary laws" in Venezuela, is expected to increase tension between Venezuela and governments elsewhere in the Americas. President Felipe Calderón of Mexico issued a veiled critique of Mr. Chávez last week, warning of the dangers of nationalizations and dictatorships in Latin America.
Similarly, President Bush called attention to Mr. Chávez's increased power on Wednesday. "I am concerned about the undermining of democratic institutions," Mr. Bush said in an interview with Fox News, referring to the vote on Wednesday. "And we're working to help prevent that from happening."
Pro-Chávez activists in Venezuela have said the decree power did not differ substantially from an executive order signed by Mr. Bush this month that gives the White House greater authority in shaping regulatory policies in the federal bureaucracy. Mr. Chávez and other Venezuelan presidents have been granted enhanced authority before. Measures enacted by Mr. Chávez during a similar decree period in 2001, including land reform legislation and tax increases on foreign oil companies, led to social unrest in 2002.
"Chavez doesn't want power," said Carlos Alarcon, 60, a social worker for the Caracas city government, which is controlled by an ally of Mr. Chavez. "He just wants to help people. He came from below."
But even some supporters of Mr. Chávez have questioned why he feels the need to bypass debate over measures that could have far-reaching impact. Legislators specified 11 areas in his enhanced power, including public safety, territorial arrangement, energy and national security.
Since winning re-election in December with more than 60 percent of the vote, Mr. Chávez has moved to strengthen his grip on power. He has said his government will not renew the broadcast license of RCTV, a television station critical of his policies, with plans to turn over the license to a state broadcasting entity.
And Mr. Chávez has moved to nationalize companies in the telecommunications and electricity industries, as well as asserting greater control over oil-producing ventures with foreign energy companies. Mr. Chávez has also signaled deeper changes to governing structures by putting a Communist Party legislator in charge of strengthening "communal councils," local governing entities loyal to Mr. Chávez.
Jens Erik Gould contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela