CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Thursday he had a “battery” of decrees ready to issue once parliament grants him special powers that opponents say are an attack on democracy in the South American nation.
The National Assembly — dominated by members of Chavez’s ruling Socialist Party — was set to approve the controversial “Enabling Law” giving the socialist leader yearlong decree powers late on Thursday or on Friday.
Latin America’s leading U.S. critic has used such powers three times before during his 11-year rule to pass about 200 laws, and says he needs them again to respond to an emergency caused by floods that have made about 140,000 people homeless.
“I have the first battery of 20 laws ready,” Chavez said during a visit to land near the international airport outside Caracas being taken over to build low-cost housing.
Chavez says his motives are humanitarian, but he clearly intends to use decrees powers to entrench his “21st century socialism” revolution in Venezuela and outflank the opposition before a new National Assembly convenes on January 5.
An opposition coalition won 40 percent of seats in the incoming parliament in September elections and had hoped to use that at least as a soap box to criticize Chavez and possibly to put brakes on some legislation.
But Chavez’s move effectively sidelines the new parliament for a year, giving him the political initiative but also opening himself up to accusations of dictatorial behavior two years before Venezuela’s next presidential election.
“They say I am a dictator and tyrant, but look what I am doing,” said Chavez, surrounded by refugees who he said would be housed within a year on the land by the airport.
Chavez has already announced an imminent rise in the sales tax and is expected to use the decree powers to push forward a wide range of legislation on all fronts.
Although he gave no more clues about specific laws on Thursday, more nationalizations look inevitable. Chavez has said repeatedly that land was needed to solve Venezuela’s housing shortage and move people out of precarious shantytowns where recent rains have caused most damage.
“The (Enabling Law) request forms part of Chavez’s ongoing efforts to broaden his revolution, on the basis the government needs to react to the heavy rains, floods, and landslides,” said IHS Global Insight analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos.
“Nevertheless, in practice, these extraordinary powers are likely to be used to continue targeting businesses and private property,” he added in a report by the economic think tank.
Chavez has nationalized large swaths of the OPEC member’s economy since taking office in 1999.
Opposition parties, which have failed to dislodge Chavez with mass marches and a national strike in the past, are not gearing up for another major protest campaign, although there have been small demonstrations and skirmishes outside parliament.
Opposition leaders appear to be hoping Venezuelans will judge that Chavez is going too far and vote him out in 2012.
Foes say Chavez’s behavior is an abuse of democracy given that the outgoing parliament is giving him powers that will limit the incoming assembly’s space.
“This (Enabling Law) is a sort of coup d’etat by the state, since it annuls the next National Assembly for a year,” leading Chavez critic and newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff said.
“The president does whatever he wants, as if he is the owner of Venezuela,” Petkoff told Reuters, saying Chavez was taking Venezuela on an ever more totalitarian path.
Chavez supporters say he is redressing decades of injustice under previous governments and has encouraged democracy by giving power and funds to grass-roots groups.
Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga; Editing by Peter Cooney