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US Calls Chavez' Rule by Decree Effort Worrisome

The United States Thursday expressed concern about recent moves by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to expand his powers through a series of executive decrees. The decrees, made public this week, have spurred domestic protests. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department is calling the rule by decree effort by President Chavez worrisome, and it says the controversial Venezuelan leader appears to be trying to take, by fiat, powers he had been denied by the country's voters in a referendum last year.

Officials in Caracas said Mr. Chavez issued a set of 26 presidential decrees last week, at the end of an 18-month period in which he had been given special authority by the country's national assembly.

The decrees, which were only made public by the government on Monday, give Mr. Chavez - among other things - the power to appoint regional leaders with broad budgetary powers, and to set up a civilian militia that critics say rivals the existing military and would emulate civilian monitoring groups that control many aspects of life in Cuba.

Other decrees would allow the Venezuelan leader to expropriate goods from private businesses and increase state control over food distribution.

Domestic critics of Mr. Chavez have called the action the equivalent of a coup-d'etat and a protest march by about 1,000 people in Caracas Wednesday was blocked by police using tear-gas.

At a news briefing, State Department Acting Spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said rule by fiat runs counter to fundamental principles to which Venezuela is committed under the Inter-American Democratic Charter. He said the way the new laws were presented deprived Venezuelans of their right to debate them:

"The texts of these 26 laws were not made available until August 4, several days after their enactment on July 31 [and] just as President Chavez' enabling powers expired. Under these circumstances, neither Venezuela's citizens, nor the National Assembly, were afforded the opportunity to participate in debate on these changes. This is especially worrisome because many of these new laws appear to mirror proposed laws that were rejected by the Venezuelan people during the December, 2007 constitutional referendum," he said.

The defeated referendum would have imposed radical economic changes and allowed Mr. Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely. After his electoral setback, the Venezuelan leader, who has clashed repeatedly with the Bush administration, appeared to be taking a less confrontational approach.

But his domestic opponents have been alarmed by the decrees and other recent developments, including a decision by the country's Supreme Court to bar more than 250 people from running for office in November elections, while they are being investigated by the pro-Chavez state comptroller-general on corruption charges.

Those affected are mainly aligned with the opposition including a popular Chavez critic, Leopoldo Lopez, who would be prevented from running for mayor of Caracas.

Mr. Chavez said in a speech late Wednesday that concerns about his new decrees are overblown and that he is acting lawfully for the benefit of the entire country.

He said anyone who objects to his decrees is free to challenge them in the Supreme Court, though critics of the populist leader say that would be futile given that six of its seven members are considered Chavez supporters.

Protest leaders have vowed more marches including a larger one in the capital Saturday.