August 05, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez is aiming to set up neighborhood-based militias, move toward a socialist economy in Venezuela and increase state control over agriculture under a package of laws enacted by presidential decree.
Changes in areas from the military to small business loans were pushed through by the president in 26 laws released Monday in the official gazette. Chavez approved them on the final day of an 18-month period during which lawmakers had granted him special legislative powers.
Critics fumed that Chavez did not consult with major business groups before approving the decrees, and some warned the laws would scare off private investment and further weaken private enterprise.
"We ask the president: Why does he fear democracy?" Fedecamaras business chamber leader Jose Manuel Gonzalez said at a news conference.
Gonzalez said business leaders were busy analyzing the scope of the decrees because they came as a complete surprise. He warned the package of laws included socialist concepts that voters rejected last year as part of Chavez's proposed overhaul of Venezuela's constitution.
"We are sure that this is nothing more than imposing the reform project that was rejected in December," Gonzalez said.
Vice President Ramon Carrizalez denied it, saying "there are things that can be done without the necessity of reforming the constitution."
Under one of the new laws, food retailers or distributors caught skirting government-imposed price controls or hoarding products will be punished with up to six years in prison.
Business owners who refuse to produce, import, transport or sell "items of basic necessity" can face up to 10 years in jail.
The decree allows the government to "restrict or prohibit the import, export, distribution, exchange or sale" of certain foods or agricultural products and "take over distribution activities when considered necessary."
Other measures increase state control over commerce, services and publicity. Businesses that violate the new rules can face fines or indefinite closure.
One decree aims to support efforts toward a socialist-style economy at the community level, providing for bartering of goods and "social property" businesses operated communally.
"The government believes it can advance toward a centralized, state-run economic system, but that's going to cause more conflict with the business community," said Jorge Botti, an economist who heads a F
Critics also raised concerns about a decree that creates a new National Bolivarian Militia - a branch of the military consisting of civilian volunteers who will help neighborhood-based "communal councils" establish "defense committees."
Former defense minister Fernando Ochoa warned that neighborhood defense groups could closely resemble Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which encourage citizens to watch for "counterrevolutionary" activities.
Associated Press writer Christopher Toothaker, in Caracas, contributed to this report.