President Hugo Chavez was granted Wednesday by the National Assembly special powers during 18 months, to accelerate changes in broad areas of society and the economy by presidential decree.
Convening in a downtown Caracas plaza in a session that resembled a political rally, lawmakers unanimously gave Chavez sweeping powers to legislate by decree and impose his radical vision of a more egalitarian socialist state under the wrappings of the "Bolivarian revolution". "Long live the sovereign people! Long live President Hugo Chavez! Long live socialism!" said National Assembly President Cilia Flores as she proclaimed the "enabling law" approved by a show of hands. The law gives Chavez more power than he has ever had in eight years as president and is planned to transform broad areas of Venezuelan public life, from the economy and the oil industry in particular, to "social matters" and the very structure of the state. The US Government reacted by saying it will be keep a watchful eye over the way President Chávez will exert his special powers invested by the National Assembly. "We will see how President Chávez is to exercise these powers" said US Department of State Spokesman Sean McCormack, when queried about the enabling law. "It is a decision of the Venezuelan legislature" added the spokesperson who remembered that the US Government concern with respect to Chávez has been focused always on "his way of ruling". "I really think that it is somewhat surprising, but it is their decision. Let us see how Mr. Chávez will use such powers". Chavez, a former paratrooper commander re-elected with 63% of the vote in December, has promised to decree nationalizations of Venezuela's largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector, slap new taxes on the rich, and impose greater state control over the oil and natural gas industries. The law also allows Chavez to dictate unspecified measures to transform state institutions; reform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations; decide on security and defence matters such as gun regulations and military organization; and "adapt" legislation to ensure "the equal distribution of wealth" as part of a new "social and economic model". Chavez plans to reorganize regional territories and carry out reforms aimed at bringing "power to the people" through thousands of newly formed Communal Councils designed to give Venezuelans a say on spending an increasing flow of state money on projects in their neighbourhoods, from public housing to potholes. Opposition leader Julio Borges called for the 4 million Venezuelans who voted against Chavez not to be left out of decision-making, particularly as he pushes for constitutional changes including "indefinite" re-election. "The worst we Venezuelans can do is throw in the towel and become like an ostrich (burying our heads in the sand) and giving up the fight" warned Borges. However top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, said the enabling law isn't anything new in Venezuela. "It's something valid under the constitution" said Shannon and "as with any tool of democracy, it depends how it is used" he added. "At the end of the day, it's not a question for the United States or for other countries, but for Venezuela". Chavez has requested special powers twice before, but for more modest legislative changes. But now Chavez has a free hand to bring under state control the oil and natural gas projects still run by private companies in Venezuela. Chavez has said companies upgrading heavy oil in the Orinoco River basin (British Petroleum PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., Conoco-Phillips Co., Total SA and Statoil ASA) must submit to state-controlled joint ventures.