WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Venezue-lan President Hugo Chavez is using autocratic powers to subvert the will of the people, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday after the socialist leader said he would rule by decree for a year.
Today, Venezuela’s National Assembly is due to grant Chavez the authority to fast-track laws in a move that undermines a bloc of opposition lawmakers who join parliament next month.
Chavez, a leading U.S. critic, has ruled by decree three times before during his 11 years in power and says he needs the authority again to deal with a national emergency caused by floods that killed 40 people and left almost 140,000 homeless.
“This is the fourth time that President Chavez has employed one of these decrees. He seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers,” said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.
Once approved, Chavez will be able to issue laws across a wide range of areas including housing, land, finances and security. On Monday, he announced a sales tax hike as among the decrees and analysts expect new economic measures are likely.
Private banks and property owners are bracing themselves for another wave of nationalizations by the Cuba ally, who has taken Venezuela down a more radical route in an effort to entrench “21st century socialism.”
The Socialist Party that dominates Venezuela’s Assembly has been rushing laws to promote a communal economy and a clutch of bills increasing Chavez’s control over South America’s top oil exporter before more opposition lawmakers are sworn-in next month.
“What he is doing here, we believe, is, you know, subverting the will of the Venezuela people,” Crowley said.
Chavez’s opponents are furious about the decree plan and the wave of legislation. There have been small-scale protests and skirmishes outside the National Assembly.
Government supporters wielding sticks and stones attacked a student march in the center of Caracas, a Reuters witness said. The students reported 13 injuries in the demonstration of about 500 people against a bill they say limits university autonomy.
The Organization of American States’ human rights body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, also criticized the steps taken by Chavez to rush through controversial legislation. It includes rules that put pressure on an opposition TV station, limits on Internet content and restrictions on foreign funding of nongovernmental groups.
Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, rejected the criticism and asserted that members of the rights body worked for the CIA. He accused them of silence on abuses carried out by the United States.
Supporters of Chavez say he is redressing years of imbalance and has encouraged democracy by giving power and funds to grass-roots groups.