CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has passed an intelligence law that could force people to spy on their neighbors as part of an attempt to deflect attention from evidence linking his government to the left-wing Colombian rebel group FARC, experts say.
Though the law will scrap the secret police, known as Disip, and the Military Intelligence Directorate, it will create four agencies in their place, including the General Intelligence Office and General Counterintelligence Office, both under civilian command, as well as two bodies commanded by the military.
Critics believe the law is designed to prevent people from speaking out against a government that has seen its popularity decline in recent months.
Miguel Henrique Otero, a fierce critic of the Venezuelan president and editor of the national daily newspaper El Nacional, said the law "turns all Venezuelans into obligated informers."
The law allows easier access to surveillance methods such as wiretapping without the need to obtain a court order. Authorities also may be able to withhold evidence from defense lawyers if they deem it in the interest of national security.
"It eliminates the defense of the citizen and converts the judicial power into an intelligence system beneath the sole mandate of President Hugo Chávez," Otero said.
Some critics say the law is a means of drawing attention away from the internal and external threats he is facing.
During a March raid into Ecuadorian territory, the Colombian military found laptops belonging to the slain FARC leader Raúl Reyes that allegedly linked Chávez to the Marxist group.
Chávez announced that the incriminating files on the computer had been tampered with, but the international police agency Interpol three weeks ago said that was not the case.
Demetrio Boersner, a professor of international studies who teaches at the Universidad Católica in Caracas, said in an interview that he believes Chávez was on the defensive and is concerned about what the international response will be once the full details of the alleged links are revealed.
"It is a defensive reaction to strengthen his system of control," he said. "It is not just the opposition in general that is on the increase but opposition within 'Chavismo' as well. The president is losing his core support and these moves are a way of intimidating people and generating fear."
English student David Duque, 23, agreed. "It's an abuse of power," he said. "Chávez is bringing in this law so he can put pressure on people who are making things difficult for him."
Venezuela's interior and justice minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, has rejected claims that it restricts political dissent. He dismissed such ideas as scaremongering by an opposition looking to attack Chávez at any opportunity.
In a Tuesday press conference on state television, Chacín said, "Nowhere does [the law] mention freedom of expression; therefore, I don't know how it can restrict it. It's not a crime to give a free opinion in this country. Here, we Venezuelans are guaranteed our free opinions."
Some analysts have compared it to the Patriot Act, which granted expanded powers to the U.S. government following Sept. 11, 2001, and the Venezuelan government insists that the new measures are necessary.
The president of Disip, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, told state television, "Intelligence and counterintelligence are a fundamental weapon in the defense and development of the nation. This law is directed at the field of state security."
Government officials say the new law — which was passed by presidential decree — also is aimed at defending the country against military rebellions or a potential coup.
Chávez long has claimed that the Bush administration was involved in a military coup that temporarily removed him from power in 2002. He has said the move is necessary to prevent spying from Washington.
As the Venezuelan government prepares itself for the election of state governors in November, analysts suggest that Chávez's ruling party, the Partido Socialista de Venezuela, could face a serious challenge at the ballot box by a previously disparate opposition.
International opinion also is building against the firebrand leader, and several countries have voiced concern about Venezuela's links with Colombian guerillas.
The U.S. State Department also has reaffirmed that it would "always look with concern at any measures that are taken that would restrict people's ability to exercise their fundamental human rights."
In Venezuela, opposition groups have planned several anti-government protests in the coming weeks, including one in Caracas on Saturday.