Chavez gets powers to rule by decree

Updated: 2007-02-01 08:59

CARACAS - Venezuela's Congress on Wednesday granted President Hugo Chavez powers to rule by decree for 18 months as he tries to force through nationalizations key to his self-styled leftist revolution.

The vote allows anti-U.S. leader Chavez, who has been in power since 1999, to deepen state control of the economy and other sectors of public life such as defense and security.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez addresses the media during a news conference at Carondelet Palace in Quito, Ecuador, January 16, 2007. [Reuters]
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez addresses the media during a news conference at Carondelet Palace in Quito, Ecuador, January 16, 2007. [Reuters]

Chavez's increasing centralization of power in the No. 4 oil exporter to the United States prompted rare public comments from President Bush.

"I'm concerned about the Venezuelan people, and I'm worried about the diminution of democratic institution(s)," he said in an interview with Fox News to be broadcast later on Wednesday, after being asked about Chavez's nationalizations.

Afternoon headlines in the anti-Chavez press were more scathing. Tal Cual splashed with "Heil Hugo" and equated the enabling law with powers granted to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. El Mundo had the headline "Superchavez enabled."

The lawmakers, all loyal to Chavez after opposition parties boycotted the 2005 congressional elections, flaunted their populist credentials by taking the unusual step of holding their vote in public in a square in downtown Caracas.

"We in the National Assembly will not waver in granting President Chavez an enabling law so he can quickly and urgently set up the framework for resolving the grave problems we have," said congressional Vice President Roberto Hernandez.

The economic reforms are set to work in tandem with increased political centralization. Chavez is forging a single party to lead his radical reforms, stripping the central bank of autonomy and seeking indefinite re-election.

The vote was applauded by hundreds of Chavez supporters in red T-shirts, carrying placards such as "With Chavez, the people rule" and "Venezuela toward socialism."

Chavez has targeted the oil industry, power utilities and the country's biggest telecommunications firm for takeover, affecting many foreign owners and shareholders.

Washington's direct response to the law itself was muted, saying the United States would wait to see what Chavez does with his new powers.

"We, along with the rest of the hemisphere, will be keeping a close eye on how the enabling law is used. But at the end of the day, this is not so much a question for the United States and other nations as for the Venezuelan people," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon told reporters in Bogota.

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