Hugo Chavez heads to 2011 with power to rule by decree

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was given an early new year's eve present by the outgoing parliament: The power to rule by decree and bypass his legislative opponents.

Miraflores Palace/Reuters
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (r.) and Bolivian President Evo Morales (l.) talk to the media during a visit to a shelter in the western state of Zulia, Sunday. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made his first use of new decree powers on Sunday to create a $2.3 billion fund for reconstruction after widespread flooding that left more than 130,000 people homeless.

Just a few weeks ago, it appeared Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez was in for a tough 2011. His party had lost seats in the parliament scheduled to sit in January and his political opponents were vowing to roll-back his socialist program.

But it now appears he has made up for his losses. The outgoing parliament passed a flurry of controversial initiatives that included giving Mr. Chavez decree powers for 18 months.

As is always the case in polarized Venezuela, opinions are divided over the laws, which range from extending government control over universities to limiting foreign funding for NGOs. Critics, who seem to oppose Chavez no matter what he does, called the measures a “coup d’etat,” while his steadfast supporters say they ensure that his socialist “Bolivarian Revolution” is not halted in its tracks.

Legislative elections in September cost Chavez his previous two-thirds majority and gave his opponents the theoretical ability to hold up some legislation. Some of his more controversial moves in recent years have been expropriating of private companies or placing more control over the central bank in the hands of the executive.

But it seems that for the time being he can move unfettered. Chavez says he wanted the power to rule by decree just to speed up the process of getting aid to victims of a flood that displaced over 130,000 people recently.

But his critics predict the decree power (contained in the Enabling Law) will be used to override parliamentary opponents at least through 2012, the year of the next presidential election. Chavez, who backed a referendum last year that ended presidential term limits, will most certainly be on the ballot.

“The Enabling Law will give him extraordinary powers so he can apply the laws rejected by the people,” says Francisco Carmona, a retired personnel manager in Caracas. “Here, we call that a coup d'etat.”

Authoritarian rule?

The opposition argues that Chavez is moving towards authoritarian rule. But Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela’s University of the East and the author of “Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon,” says that the criticism is misguided. “It’s not an issue of authoritarian rule versus democratic rule. Because if Chavez wanted to, prior to recent elections and until now, he completely dominated the national assembly... Any specific legislation… he could have passed until now.”

Instead, Mr. Ellner says, Chavez is trying to convince his base that his project, known as “the process,” will not stagnate, even with a narrower majority in parliament. “These reforms allow Chavez to move forward and not get bogged down in parliamentary infighting,” he says.

Among the other laws passed last week, one brings stricter internet regulation and another calls for legislators who switch parties mid-term to be suspended. Critics say a desire to stifle opposition is the common thread linking the new rules. A new media law, for example, facilitates the government closure of websites if they criticize public officials. Under the terms of the law, online sites must not broadcast anything that “foments anxiety or disturbs public order” or “incites or promotes hatred or intolerance.”

So far the laws have not silenced Chavez' foes. The law allowing for greater government oversight over universities, where much opposition brews, brought thousands of students to the streets in protest. A law passed Wednesday that can bar NGOs that defend “political rights” from receiving foreign funding drew heavy international criticism.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch who has butted heads with Chavez in the past, said in a statement: “This law gives the Chávez government legal cover to expand its longstanding practice of bullying local human rights defenders and trying to keep international advocates away from the Venezuelan public,” Mr. Vivanco said.

Oligarchy's revolt?

Chavez has denied that he is trying to amass more power. He says he is simply doing what is best for the people and his “21st Century socialism” project that attempts to more equitably distribute wealth and power. He says critics are trying to destabilize his plans. “Now the oligarchy is again calling for rebellion and for people to ignore the authorities,” he said last week. “We cannot let down our guard.”

Ellner says the rash of laws could serve to electrify his supporters, some of whom have been disenchanted lately with a drop in the quality of public services. “In order to win elections, you have to count on an invigorated base of support. That’s what he achieves,” he says.

But for some Venezuelans, the laws only raise more suspicions that the president is not acting in their best interests, especially as inflation remains stubbornly high and rising crime and impunity for criminals remains the top concern of many Venezuelans.

Carmen Hernandez, a food vendor in Caracas, says she lost a family member three years ago, and the killer went free despite strong evidence. Her point: Why create new laws when you don’t apply the existing laws?

“This turns Venezuela into a mess. Here there are no laws, there is no justice,” she says. “Instead of approving laws, they need to get their hands around justice.”

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