VENEZUELA, AS ITS president, Hugo Chavez, never tires of pointing out, is still a democracy. It's just a place where democracy is a little more nonbinding than elsewhere.
To illustrate just how democratic the country is, the 167 members of the National Assembly -- all of whom support the president because the opposition boycotted the last parliamentary election -- convened outdoors in Caracas last month, to be better seen by the throngs of red-shirted Chavistas gathered in the square, and unanimously voted themselves into irrelevance.
The vote gave Chavez the power to make laws by decree for 18 months, with no need to even use his Assembly's rubber stamp. Seeing as how Chavez already had total control over the judicial branch, how he is taking steps to quell opposition media and how he could have rammed any law he chose through the Assembly with barely a semblance of debate or a whisper of protest, his new powers seem gratuitous. But even symbolic oversight can be messy, bureaucratic and slow. Kind of like democracy.
Venezuela's constitution allows the legislature to cede decree powers to the president, which it has done several times to other presidents and once before to Chavez, in 2000. But normally this occurs in times of fiscal upheaval, not while the nation is swimming in oil revenues. Chavez is expected to use his powers to, among other frightening things, do away with presidential term limits so he can remain in office indefinitely.