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Catholic Bishops: Venezuela on Brink of 'Totalitarianism'

An opponent of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez holds a Venezuelan flag that reads "Venezuela Free Democracy" on a street near the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011. Opposition lawmakers gained a bigger presence and a platform to challenge President Hugo Chavez as a new National Assembly took office on Wednesday. They will have to contend with a president whose allies granted him expanded powers to pass laws by decree. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

An opponent of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez holds a Venezuelan flag that reads "Venezuela Free Democracy" on a street near the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011. Opposition lawmakers gained a bigger presence and a platform to challenge President Hugo Chavez as a new National Assembly took office on Wednesday. They will have to contend with a president whose allies granted him expanded powers to pass laws by decree. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)  (AP2011)

In December of 2010, President Hugo Chavez awarded himself a package of laws that dramatically expanded his powers and allowed him to undermine opponents in one of the boldest moves of his presidency.

Today, Roman Catholic leaders in Venezuela are calling for Chávez to give up special lawmaking powers granted to him by his congressional allies.

Critics charge that Chávez used an outgoing National Assembly packed with loyalists to pass  new measures allowing him to stifle dissent — over the air, on the Internet, in universities and from independent organizations that get foreign funding. He also has obtained broad powers to bypass Venezuela's legislature and enact laws by decree for the next year-and-a-half.

The Venezuelan Bishops' Conference condemned a package of laws approved last month by the National Assembly, including one that grants Chávez power to enact laws by decree for the next 18 months. Chávez gained those powers shortly before a new congress took office with more opposition lawmakers.

A statement from the bishops released Tuesday accuses Chávez of trying to impose a totalitarian system in Venezuela.

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Chávez and the bishops have feuded for years. Chávez has accused the Catholic leadership of neglecting the poor and of siding with his opponents and the rich.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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