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Venezuela's President Granted New Powers to Declare Law

Venezuelan lawmakers approved a measure Wednesday granting President Hugo Chavez the power to issue law by decree for the next 18 months. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports that supporters of the president say the move will help further the government's socialist reforms.

Lawmakers voted unanimously in favor of the measure during an open-air session in a plaza in downtown Caracas. Some Venezuelan officials said the power to rule by decree is crucial to President Hugo Chavez's goal of transforming the nation into a socialist state.

The new law gives Mr. Chavez the authority to impose changes in several key areas, including the energy sector and the military. Mr. Chavez is expected to use the new powers to nationalize some oil and natural gas projects controlled by private companies. He also plans to introduce a series of constitutional reforms, and introduce laws empowering thousands of new local government agencies called Communal Councils.

Supporters of the measure say it will increase the efficiency of the nation's government and help achieve the equal distribution of wealth. Critics say it places too much power in the hands of the president.

Jennifer McCoy, political science professor at Georgia State University, says it is not the first time that Venezuela's legislature has given such control to the president. She says Venezuela's 1961 constitution, which was replaced in 1999, also allowed the president to issue decrees.

"And of course, President Chavez had this power before in 2001, when he decreed 49 laws and that did lead to great upheaval and the attempted or the short-lived coup in 2002," she said.

Some of the laws imposed in 2001 included land reforms and higher taxes for foreign oil companies, which triggered a bitter struggle with opposition groups.

The latest measure is raising concern that similar divisions within Venezuela may re-surface. Susan Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, says the latest move shows Mr. Chavez's policies are a threat to democracy.

"His 21st century socialism plan, I think, is a more modern way of becoming dictatorial or of destroying democracy and governing in an authoritarian way," she said.

Supporters of Mr. Chavez reject such criticism, noting that his policies - including the latest measure - comply with the constitution.

U.S. officials have expressed repeated concern about the democratic process in Venezuela. But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said it is too early to judge the latest developments.

"I don't think we can offer a final assessment," he said. "This was a decision made by their parliament. I think it certainly raises - might raise - some eyebrows, but it is their decision to make, and we will see how Mr. Chavez uses these powers."

Mr. Chavez has yet to offer many details about the measures he plans to introduce during the 18-month decree period.