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Chavez wins right to rule by decree

February 01, 2007|From Times Wire Services

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — President Hugo Chavez was granted sweeping powers Wednesday to rule by decree for 18 months to accelerate his push toward socialism, a move that critics said propelled Venezuela toward dictatorship.

Convening in a downtown plaza for a session that resembled a political rally, the National Assembly unanimously gave Chavez control in 11 key areas, including the economy, the oil industry, defense and the structure of the state.

"Long live the sovereign people! Long live President Hugo Chavez! Long live socialism!" said National Assembly President Cilia Flores as she proclaimed the "enabling law" approved by a show of hands.

Chavez critics call the law a radical lurch toward authoritarianism by a leader with unchecked power, similar to the way Fidel Castro monopolized leadership in Cuba years ago.

"We're headed toward a dictatorship disguised as a democracy," said Luis Gonzalez, a high school teacher who paused to watch the session in the plaza, where hundreds of Chavez supporters wearing ruling-party red were gathered.

But Venezuelan Vice President Jorge Rodriguez publicly ridiculed the idea that the law was an abuse of power, and argued that democracy was flourishing.

Chavez, reelected with 63% of the vote in December, has said he will decree nationalizations of Venezuela's largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector, slap new taxes on the rich and impose greater state control over the oil and natural gas industries.

The law also allows Chavez to dictate unspecified measures to transform state institutions; reform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations; decide on security and defense matters such as gun regulations and military organization; and "adapt" legislation to ensure "the equal distribution of wealth" as part of a new "social and economic model."

Chavez has said he plans to reorganize regional territories and carry out reforms aimed at bringing "power to the people" through thousands of newly formed Communal Councils. The councils are designed to give Venezuelans a say on the neighborhood projects to be funded by the increasing flow of state money.

Opposition leader Julio Borges called for the 4 million Venezuelans who voted against Chavez not to be left out of the decision-making.

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