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Venezuela's Chávez riles critics with new decree

Chávez issued 26 laws last week, many of which resemble items in a constitutional reform package rejected by voters last December.

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The list was created by the comptroller general, a Chávez ally, who has maintained that candidates undergoing corruption charges cannot run for public office. The majority on the list is aligned with opposition parties.

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Last week, about 1,000 Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas in protest of the new measures, shouting "Freedom!"

Over the weekend, opposition leaders and students, who played a critical role in December's referendum defeat, staged another march. Many observers expect more outcry in coming weeks. "People feel betrayed. They are going to make him pay in these elections," says Abraham Bellorin, a radio producer and opposition supporter. "The law decrees lit the match of conscious popular reaction."

The central government, however, says that the new laws are part of an effort to make bureaucracy more efficient.

Sour grapes?

And government supporters say the flurry of criticism comes from an opposition that is concerned with losing its privileges. "The opposition represents minorities, land owners, capitalists," says Saul Ortega, a pro-Chávez deputy and vice president of the National Assembly. "Since laws don't favor privileged minorities, you get criticisms."

Still, the move took some by surprise. Chávez recently had seemed to acquiesce, revoking, for example, a controversial intelligence law and putting the brakes on an education law that would have taught socialism as part of the school curriculum.

But some see it as a calculated move. "Chávez had a Plan A and a Plan B," says Maryclen Stelling, a sociology professor at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Venezuela. "Approving the constitutional reforms through a vote – the revolution using democratic channels – represented Plan A, and the enabling law was Plan B."

And some worry about what comes next. "If the president leaps over the Constitution by inserting law decrees [that were] rejected, what stops him from introducing indefinite reelection? What public power can put the brakes on what the government wants to do?" says Ronald Balza, an economics professor at Andrés Bello Catholic University. "Chávez moves in zigzag, knocking down institutions one at a time so he can do what he likes. Sometimes there's a step back. He lost the reform, then he launches 26 laws."

Chávez sought to temper criticism of a power grab on his Sunday television program. "What secret laws?" he asked. "They were published, and all were debated and discussed. And anyone who is not in favor of a law or a part of a law can go to the Supreme Court. In Venezuela, there is the rule of law."