Los Angeles Times
August 05, 2008
CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- President Hugo Chavez aims to set up neighborhood-based militias and increase state control over agriculture under a package of laws enacted by decree on the final day of an 18-month period during which lawmakers had granted him special legislative powers.
Changes in areas as diverse as the military and small business loans were pushed through in 26 laws released Monday in the official gazette.
Critics fumed that Chavez did not consult with major business groups before issuing the decrees, and some warned that the laws would scare off private investment and further weaken private enterprise.
Jose Manuel Gonzalez, leader of the Fedecamaras business chamber, said at a news conference that the laws came as a surprise and 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 that "there are things that can be done without the necessity of reforming the constitution."
Under one of the 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 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 closure.
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 resemble Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which encourage citizens to watch for "counterrevolutionary" activities.