Critics say Venezuelan President wants to use an emergency flood-response law to nip power from growing opposition presence in National Assembly
EYES INSIDE – LATIN AMERICA
Once more, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is pushing the accepted bounds of democracy. Under a national emergency law voted on Thursday, Chávez could gain the power to effectively rule by decree thanks to legislation that grants him special powers to deal with deadly floods that have hit the country.
The government says the law is designed to give special attention to the estimated 138,000 people across the country who have lost their homes in the ravaging rains that have drenched the South American nation for weeks. Caracas daily El Nacional quotes Vice President Elías Jaua's announcing Chávez's petition to Assembly members, and justifying the new powers: "We are in the middle of a deep crisis which deserves the president's request," Jaua said Tuesday.
Another Caracas-based paper El Universal reports that the flood response is part of a packet of measures the Chávez administration wants lawmakers to consider, which will also allow him to legislate in other areas such as finance, housing and infrastructure, social affairs, international cooperation, and urban planning. There are 11 reforms in total to be considered, including a new media law that leading human rights groups say could be used to clamp down on freedom of expression.
Critics say the measures are part of a strategy to curtail legislative powers before an opposition bloc joins the National Assembly next month. When the assembly reconvenes on January 5, the opposition's strength will be notably bolstered, taking 67 of the 165 seats in parliament
One of those incoming lawmakers, Tomás Guanipa, said that the government once again is showing that it is "authoritarian, arbitrary, anti-democratic."
"The emergency caused by the rains is just one of the clauses in the enabling law," Guanipa told El Universal on Wednesday. "In reality this is one law to transform the state, society and the economy in very diverse areas, and because of this, it has nothing to do with the emergency."
The enabling law passed during first discussion Tuesday in the unicameral assembly, where Chávez's political allies hold the majority. Assembly president Cilia Flores, a Chávez ally, said that lawmakers would give the president special powers to rule by decree for one full year when the motion is presented in the lower chamber on Thursday, and Vice President Jaua predicted that Chávez could issue the first decrees in 15 days, as reported by the Buenos Aires daily La Nación.
This will be the fourth time in Chávez's 11 years in office he has ruled by decree. In Washington on Wednesday, US State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said that the Venezuelan leader was undermining incoming opposition lawmakers, who were elected in September. "He seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers," Crowley said. "What he is doing here, we believe, is subverting the will of the Venezuelan people."
In a statement, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also said that Chávez's measure gave him "imprecise" and "ambigous' powers that weaken Venezuela's democratic system.