Venezuelans may be forced to spy on their neighbors or risk prison terms under President Hugo Chavez's new intelligence decree, which has critics fearing a Cuba-style system that could be used to stifle dissent.
Chavez says the intelligence law that he quietly signed by decree last week will help Venezuela detect and neutralize security threats, including any assassination plots or attempted coups.
But many Venezuelans are alarmed they could be forced to act as informants for the authorities — or face up to four years in prison.
"It's a system just like Cuba," said Raul Barbiera, an 80-year-old barber who was born in Spain and immigrated to Venezuela decades ago. He said the law reminds him of his experiences under the fascist dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, when "you couldn't speak against the government."
Barbiera said people will be more careful what they say because "anyone can start a file on you."
The law states that security forces don't need court orders for surveillance such as wiretapping, and authorities can withhold evidence from defense lawyers if that is deemed to be in the interest of national security.
Nancy Silva, a 45-year-old shopkeeper, said she fears the creation neighborhood-level spying networks because the law says community-based organizations may be called upon to provide intelligence.
"The government wants citizens to spy on each other, that's scary," Silva said.
That feeds the suspicions that many Chavez critics have about government-backed "communal councils" that decide how to spend funds for local projects. They say such groups could become like Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which encourage neighbors to watch for "counterrevolutionary" activities.
Chavez denies the law infringes on freedoms, saying it falls into "a framework of great respect for human rights" and is needed to thwart U.S. spying.
He says it will help prevent military rebellions like the 2002 coup that briefly removed him from power.
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Tuesday that based on press reports, the measures appear to "establish some kind of Soviet-style ideological conformity brigades, or otherwise require people to spy on their neighbors."
"We always look with concern at any measures that are taken that would restrict people's ability to exercise their fundamental human rights," Casey said.
Carlos Correa, a leader of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea, compared the decree to the U.S. Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, which made it easier for the government to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists' phone calls and e-mails without court permission.
"Any suspect's right to defense can be violated, and that's unacceptable," Correa said.
Venezuela's new law also revamps the intelligence services, replacing the Disip secret police and Military Intelligence Directorate with four new agencies, two under the Justice Ministry and two under military command.
That military involvement doesn't bode well for democracy, said Rocio San Miguel, who heads a Venezuelan nongovernment group that monitors security and defense issues.
"Getting the armed forces involved in domestic security tasks is typical of the dark times of military dictatorships," she said.
Most of Chavez's opponents acknowledge that Venezuela remains far from a tightly monitored society like Cuba or North Korea.
Justice Minister Rodriguez Chacin denied that Venezuela is copying Cuba's intelligence services, saying "this is a Venezuelan product." But he said on Monday that all Venezuelans have an obligation to cooperate.
Constitutional law attorney Alberto Arteaga Sanchez noted that Chavez "is constantly calling opposition leaders coup-plotters and pro-imperialists.
"And that makes me suspect this law may be used as a weapon to silence and intimidate the opposition," Sanchez said.