CARACAS, Venezuela – A congress wholly loyal to President Hugo Chavez approved a law Wednesday granting the Venezuelan leader authority to enact sweeping measures by presidential decree.
Meeting at a downtown plaza in a session that resembled a political rally, lawmakers unanimously approved all four articles of the law by a show of hands.
"Long live the sovereign people! Long live President Hugo Chavez! Long live socialism!" said National Assembly President Cilia Flores as she proclaimed the law approved. "Fatherland, socialism or death! We will prevail!"
Chavez, who is beginning a fresh six-year term, says the legislation will be the start of a new era of "maximum revolution" during which he will consolidate Venezuela's transformation into a socialist society. His critics, however, are calling it a radical lurch toward authoritarianism by a leader with unchecked power.
Hundreds of Chavez supporters wearing red — the color of Venezuela's ruling party — gathered in the plaza, waving signs reading "Socialism is democracy" as lawmakers read out passages of the law giving Chavez special powers for 18 months to transform 11 broadly defined areas, including the economy, energy and defense.
"The people of Venezuela, not just the National Assembly, are giving this enabling power to the president of the republic," said congresswoman Iris Varela, addressing the crowd.
Lawmakers discussed the law by each of its four articles, approving one after the other by a show of hands. At the end, they stood and cheered.
Chavez, a former paratroop commander who easily won re-election in December, has said he will use the law 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 defense 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, in which Venezuelans will have a say on spending an increasing flow of state money on neighborhood projects from public housing to road repaving.
Chavez's opponents, however, argue the law dangerously concentrates power in the hands of single man.
"If you have all the power, why do you need more power?" said Luis Gonzalez, a high school teacher who paused to watch in the plaza, calling it a "media show" intended to give legitimacy to a repugnant move. "We're headed toward a dictatorship, disguised as a democracy."
Chavez supporters said the law will help align the country's government and economy for a swift move toward a more egalitarian society.
"That law is going to allow the president to accelerate the process so that government becomes more efficient," said Ruperta Garcia, a 52-year-old university professor in the crowd.
Vice President Jorge Rodriguez ridiculed the idea that the law is an abuse of power and argued democracy is flourishing. He thanked the National Assembly for providing "gasoline" to start up the "engine" of societal changes.
"What kind of a dictatorship is this?" Rodriguez asked the crowd, saying the law "only serves to sow democracy and peace."
"Dictatorship is what there used to be," Rodriguez said. "We want to impose the dictatorship of a true democracy."
Historian Ines Quintero said that with the new powers, Chavez will achieve a level of "hegemony" that is unprecedented in Venezuela's nearly five decades of democratic history.
Chavez has requested special powers twice before, but for more modest legislative changes.
In 1999, shortly after he was first elected, he was only able to push through two new taxes and a revision of the income tax law after facing fierce opposition in congress. In 2001, by invoking an "enabling law" for the second time, he decreed 49 laws including controversial agrarian reform measures and a law that sharply raised taxes on foreign oil companies operating in Venezuela.
This time, the law will give Chavez a free hand to bring under state control some oil and natural gas projects that are still run by private companies — the latest in a series of nationalist energy policies in Venezuela, a top oil supplier to the United States and home to South America's largest gas reserves.
Chavez has said oil companies upgrading heavy oil in the Orinoco River basin — British Petroleum PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., Total SA and Statoil ASA — must submit to state-controlled joint ventures, as companies have already done elsewhere in the country.
The law gives Chavez the authority to intervene and "regulate" the transition to joint ventures if companies do not adapt to the new framework within an unspecified "peremptory period."