Venezuela’s Chavez makes first use of new powers

CARACAS,  (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Hugo  Chavez made his first use of new decree powers yesterday to  create a $2.3 billion fund for reconstruction after widespread  flooding that left more than 130,000 people homeless.
The South American OPEC member nation’s socialist leader  has infuriated opposition parties and been criticized as a  dictator for assuming fast-track powers for the next 18 months  that will enable him to rule by decree and bypass parliament.
Chavez has justified the measure as necessary to enable the  government to respond to recent torrential rains that swept  away houses, smashed bridges and roads, and also killed around  40 people in the nation of 29 million.
But critics say the president has cynically exploited the  disaster as an excuse to outwit opposition parties who were due  to take a larger share of seats — 40 percent — in the  incoming National Assembly which convenes on Jan. 5.
“They do nothing for the people, and they are trying to  stop me working for the people,” Chavez said of his critics as  he announced the reconstruction fund, his first decree.
The Simon Bolivar Fund, named for Venezuela’s 19th century  independence hero, would begin with 10 billion bolivars, or  $2.3 billion at Venezuela’s middle exchange rate of 4.3  bolivars to the dollar, Chavez said.
A first 506 million bolivars would go to house-building in  the western state of Zulia, the Venezuelan leader said on a  visit to that region with Bolivian President Va Morales.
“That’s what the ‘Enabling Law’ is for,” he said of the  controversial decree powers he was granted this month by the  outgoing parliament, which is packed with his supporters.
“Where do those crazy people get the idea it’s to install a  dictatorship in Venezuela?”
Chavez, who has cast himself as the inheritor of Simon  Bolivar’s ideas in Venezuela, has spent Christmas visiting  refugees from the floods and even hosting some at his  Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas.
Having only garnered half of the popular vote for his  ruling Socialist Party in September legislative elections,  Chavez knows he has a fight on his hands to win re-election at  the 2012 presidential election.
Opposition parties, who have united in a coalition  movement, have called for protests against the decree powers in  the New Year, and there has already been some violence at  demonstrations led by students.
Some analysts think the opposition will focus more effort  on convincing voters that Chavez has become too radical than on  launching a street campaign, but there are still fears of  another bout of instability in the oil-exporting nation.
“In January and throughout 2011, Chavez’s move to deepen  and radicalize his revolution could led to a political crisis  and outbreaks of civil unrest on a similar scale to those that  preceded the 2002 military coup that ousted him for 48 hours,”  said the IHS Global Insight thinktank.

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