CARACAS, (Reuters) – Venezuela’s parliament gave President Hugo Chavez decree powers for 18 months yesterday, outraging opposition parties that accused him of turning South America’s biggest oil producer into a dictatorship.
The move consolidated the firebrand socialist leader’s hold on power after nearly 12 years in office, and raised the prospect of a fresh wave of nationalizations as the former paratrooper seeks to entrench his self-styled “revolution.”
Chavez had asked for the fast-track powers for one year, saying he needed them to deal with a national emergency caused by floods that drove nearly 140,000 people from their homes.
But the Assembly, which is dominated by loyalists from his Socialist Party, decided to extend them for a year and a half.
That means the president can rule by decree until mid-2012, and can keep opposition parties out of the legislative process until his re-election campaign is well under way for Venezuela’s next presidential vote in December of that year.
The president of parliament, Cilia Flores, said lawmakers must heed the appeals of families afflicted by the floods.
“It is raised to 18 months at the proposal of those immediately affected, the same people who are there relying on Comandante Chavez,” she told the Assembly.
“So that they can have their streets, their highways, public services, electricity, everything to live in dignity, we are going to hear these proposals and concerns.”
The vote was part of a legislative onslaught to push through bills before a new National Assembly is seated on Jan. 5. Earlier on Friday, parliament passed a law making it easier for the government to nationalize banks and trim their profits.
The “Enabling Law,” which means the president can issue decrees across a wide range of areas including housing, land, finances and security, has been denounced as autocratic by his political rivals as well as by the U.S. State Department.
A freshly united opposition coalition won about half the popular vote at a parliamentary election in September to take 40 percent of the seats in the next Assembly — where they had hoped to put a check on the president’s powers.
Chavez’s latest move raised concern about whether he would accept defeat if the 2012 election does not go his way. Polls show his traditionally high ratings have slipped, with the nation split down the middle in September elections.
The president, who has used decree powers three times in the past, has said one of his first moves will be to increase the sales tax to raise funds for reconstruction after the floods.
In the past he has used the fast-track powers to pass about 100 laws, including measures to nationalize part of the oil sector and increase the number of Supreme Court judges.
The new banking law passed earlier yesterday creates stringent operating rules that include forcing banks to give 5 percent of their profits every six months to community groups.
It also allows Chavez to order the takeover of institutions that he deems problematic, a move previously made by the banking watchdog. Chavez has increased the state’s role in the sector this year, but a total takeover of banking is unlikely.
Chavez, who has inherited Fidel Castro’s mantle as Latin America’s leading U.S. critic, still has a strong power base in city slums and impoverished rural areas.
Although his foes’ view him as an autocrat ushering in Cuban-style communism, supporters say he is redressing years of imbalance and has encouraged democracy by giving power and funds to grass-roots groups that decide on some public works.