CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez has given himself the equivalent of a big Christmas present in congress: a package of laws that dramatically expand his powers and allow him to undermine opponents.
In a single week, he has used an outgoing National Assembly packed with loyalists to gain new abilities to crack down on critics – over the air, on the Internet, in universities and from independent organizations that get foreign funding. He also has obtained broad powers to bypass Venezuela’s legislature and enact laws by decree for the next year and a half.
Opponents are denouncing the maneuvers as a virtual coup d’état before a new legislature takes office Jan. 5 with enough opposition lawmakers to prevent passage of some types of major laws.
“They’re approving a bunch of laws that are aimed solely at concentrating power,” said Julio Borges, an opposition congressman-elect.
“We are advancing toward a dictatorship,” Roman Catholic Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino told Globovision television on Friday. He said officials should consider “the very great responsibility they will have before history and before God if they try to impose a totalitarian dictatorship.”
The president says the country’s “parasitic bourgeoisie” is griping because he is working to dismantle a capitalist system built to favor the rich, and denies making a power grab for himself. He says he needs decree powers to help thousands who lost homes in recent floods and mudslides – and also to attack “structural problems” as he accelerates the pace of his socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution.
Chavez has wondered aloud on national television what all the fuss is about.
“What dictatorship? My God,” Chavez told supporters Wednesday night, insisting he has no plans to infringe on freedoms or round up opponents like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and other right-wing dictators once did.
Yet Chavez has steadily amassed power as president while repeatedly winning re-election. He and his allies have filled courts with sympathetic judges, taken tighter control of institutions such as the Central Bank and expropriated a growing list of private companies.
Chavez thrives on confrontation, and the new measures also serve political aims: rallying supporters, keeping the opposition on the defensive and guiding the national debate away from problems such as crime and inflation that he has failed to tame.
Still, Chavez remains hugely popular in Venezuela, and many supporters appear to be standing by him.
“What the president is doing is helping people, looking for solutions,” said Cesar Palacio, a 43-year-old security guard. “If this were a dictatorship, the country wouldn’t be as free as it is.”