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Hugo Chávez tightens his grip in Venezuela. Can US do anything about it?

With the US focused on other parts of the world, Latin American neighbor Hugo Chávez has tightened his hold on power. The next Congress may press Obama to act, but what are his options?

By Staff writer / December 23, 2010

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez talks to a baby during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas Wednesday. A new law passed by Venezuela's legislature allows the Chávez to rule by decree until mid-2012.

Miraflores Palace/Handout/Reuters

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Washington

While the Obama administration was focused on Iran, Middle East peace, and arms control with Russia in recent weeks, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been busy consolidating his already extensive powers, which now include a mandate to rule by decree.

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The deterioration of democratic standards in a neighboring country is likely to emerge as a front-burner issue in Washington in 2011 – in part because voices in a new Congress are promising to prod what they see as a neglectful administration into action.

But it remains unclear what the Obama administration will be able to do about Mr. Chávez’s recent acts even if it decides that Venezuela’s slide from democracy is a priority.

With the Bush administration’s unsuccessful attempts at thwarting the leftist-populist Chávez a fresh memory, and with the Obama administration’s own foray into Latin American political peacemaking – in Honduras – having won few friends, Obama may be left with few options beyond regional diplomacy, some Latin America experts say.

“We can expect a lot more heated rhetoric, much tougher rhetoric about events in Venezuela in the coming weeks, especially once the new House of Representatives comes in,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “But the policy options are limited to the realm of encouraging a tougher stand in the region on what can only be called a power grab.”

In response to a surprisingly strong showing by his opposition in September legislative elections, Chávez has pushed through a raft of laws designed to blunt the impact of the new National Assembly that takes office on Jan. 5. The measures range from further clampdowns on press freedom to tighter rules for political parties.

Rule by decree

But perhaps the most sweeping law allows Chávez to rule by decree – without consultation of the new Congress – until mid-2012.

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