In a special meeting at a downtown square on Wednesday, the Venezuelan Congress stripped itself of powers and granted President Hugo Chavez temporary authority to enact sweeping measures by decree. Chavez, who is beginning a fresh six-year term, says the legislation will be the start of a new era of "maximum revolution" during which he will consolidate Venezuela's transformation into a socialist society.
According to the Venezuelan leader, the new powers will be used to 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. It is also part of a plan to reshape the country's administration structure, reorganize regional territories and carry out reforms aimed at bringing "power to the people" through thousands of newly formed Communal Councils.
"Long live the sovereign people! Long live President Hugo Chavez! Long live socialism!" said National Assembly President Cilia Flores as she proclaimed the law approved. "Fatherland, socialism or death! We will prevail!". His critics are calling it a radical lurch toward authoritarianism by a leader with unchecked power.
The law approved by the Congress allows President 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." The special powers are temporay and expire within 18 months.
As the leaders of the opposition said that the law is an abuse of power, Vice President Jorge Rodriguez ridiculed the ideaand argued democracy is flourishing. He thanked the National Assembly for providing "gasoline" to start up the "engine" of societal changes."What kind of a dictatorship is this?" Rodriguez asked the crowd that attended the open session, saying the law "only serves to sow democracy and peace.""Dictatorship is what there used to be," Rodriguez said. "We want to impose the dictatorship of a true democracy."
According to sources in Caracas, the new powers will also be used to submit foreign oil companies operating in Venezuela to state-controled joint ventures. The law gives Chavez the authority to intervene and "regulate" the transition to joint ventures if companies do not adapt to the new framework within an unspecified "peremptory period."