CARACAS, Venezuela – Riot police used tear gas Wednesday as they blocked hundreds of Venezuelans protesting what they call new moves by President Hugo Chavez to concentrate his power. The demonstrators said a blacklist barring key opposition candidates from elections and a series of socialist decrees are destroying what's left of their democracy.
Though the protest of about 1,000 people chanting "freedom!" was small compared to past marches, there is a growing public outcry over the sidelining of key government opponents ahead of state and local elections in November.
Chavez opponents also are outraged by 26 laws the president just decreed, some of them mirroring the socialist measures voters rejected in a December referendum.
Chavez said in a speech Wednesday night that their concerns are grossly overblown.
"This is a democracy. They call me a tyrant — tyrants govern without laws. We're making laws, and all those laws are for the benefit of the country," Chavez said.
Chavez issued the decrees just before the expiration of special legislative powers that allowed him to make laws without National Assembly approval for the past 18 months.
For a time after the defeat of his constitutional referendum — which would have imposed radical economic changes and let him run for re-election indefinitely — Chavez seemed to be taking a more pragmatic, less confrontational approach to his socialist project.
But the decrees suggest the leftist leader is pushing hard again to remake Venezuelan society.
"We said in the referendum that we didn't want that, and now he's put it in the decrees," said protester Josefina Bravo, a 59-year-old who wore a sticker reading "No means no" on her baseball cap. "That's the problem we have: All the powers are concentrated in the president."
One decree establishes a civilian militia that critics warn could emulate the citizen groups that control many aspects of community life in Cuba. Another gives Chavez the ability to designate regional authorities who critics say could undermine the power of locally elected officials.
Other decrees empower Chavez to expropriate goods from private businesses and increase state control over food, punishing business owners who fail to comply with price controls or other regulations with fines, closure and even 10-year prison terms.
Chavez touted another law he said will strengthen the military by establishing regional zones headed by single commanders and bringing together army, air force, navy and National Guard forces. "It's a marvelous law," he said. "This is one single armed force."
The decrees came down just as the Supreme Court, whose justices were appointed by the Chavista-dominated National Assembly, on Tuesday upheld a decision by Venezuela's top anti-corruption official to bar 272 largely opposition-aligned candidates from running.
The blacklist was drawn up by another Chavez ally, Comptroller General Clodosbaldo Russian. None of the candidates on the list have been convicted of corruption or other crimes. Opponents note that some pro-Chavez politicians who have been publicly accused of corruption aren't on the list.
Russian said his office has not singled out either political camp. And Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said Wednesday that the disqualifications affect mostly pro-Chavez candidates, while sidelining only a small percentage of all the opposition candidates in the country.
He said Venezuelans should be proud that the Supreme Court has "stuck to the constitution."
Chavez said anybody who objects to his decrees is free to challenge them to the Supreme Court. But opponents figure there is little chance the justices will rule against this president. A day after upholding the blacklist, the same court on Wednesday dismissed a challenge by popular Caracas mayoral candidate Leopoldo Lopez and five other blacklisted politicians.
Referring to the group as "little boys," Maduro accused Lopez of considering himself above the law because he's from the capital's "bourgeoisie," and challenged him to prove his innocence.
But these opponents say the Chavistas have achieved what amounts to a presidential coup, sidelining any opponents with a good chance of winning mayoral and gubernatorial posts. Lopez accused Chavez and the Supreme Court of "giving a kick to the constitution" as he spoke to demonstrators.
"You're afraid of the people and you, president, hid behind the Supreme Court," he said.
Lopez led protesters down a Caracas avenue before police in riot gear blocked them in front of a government building, tossing tear gas canisters into the crowd. Protest leaders vowed more marches, including a larger one Saturday.