CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez is using a friendly lame-duck congress to seek broad powers to rule by decree for the next year — a plan that drew strong criticism Wednesday from the U.S. government and opponents who called it a blow to democracy.
For almost five years, Chavez has enjoyed near total control of Venezuela's National Assembly thanks to a strategic blunder by his foes, who boycotted 2005 elections. That untrammeled power comes to an end Jan. 5 when a new congress arrives, with enough opposition lawmakers to hinder some types of major legislation.
Critics accuse Chavez of trying to sidestep those limits and neutralize his opponents by getting the outgoing congress to give him decree powers for 12 months — allowing him to impose laws on his own. They see it as a power grab by a president they say is steering Venezuela toward Cuba-style socialism.
Supporters say Chavez needs decree powers to swiftly approve disaster relief measures after severe floods and mudslides that left thousands homeless.
But the law goes beyond such emergency measures, allowing decrees affecting telecommunications, the banking system, information technology, the military, rural and urban land use, and the country's "socio-economic system."
Several thousand students marched to the National Assembly on Wednesday, chanting "Freedom!" to protest against a separate government bill that they fear would increase state controls over autonomous universities.
The demonstration broke up after a group of Chavez supporters hurled rocks and other objects at the marchers. At least one student was hit in the head with what appeared to be a rock.
Other government opponents warn that Chavez is trying to push through laws clamping down on opposition media, free speech and human rights groups.
In a speech to the National Assembly, opposition lawmaker Ismael Garcia denounced what he called a "a package of laws that are a coup d'etat against the constitution."
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley noted Chavez has asked congress for decree powers four times in his presidency.
"He seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers. What he is doing here, we believe, is subverting the will of the Venezuelan people," Crowley told reporters.
September elections gave Venezuelans "the opportunity to send a clear message to the government," and the new legislature "should have the ability to contribute to the political process in Venezuela," Crowley said.
Chavez has repeatedly won elections since he first won the presidency in 1998 and insists he fully respects democratic principles.
He lashed out at the U.S. criticism, saying "they're repeating the discourse of the far right here, of their pawns here."
"It's the empire and its permanent aggressions, its threats," Chavez said in a speech to applauding lawmakers.
He also reacted to U.S. documents released by WikiLeaks that show American diplomats have privately discussed efforts to counter Chavez's influence, saying: "The empire is afraid — not of Chavez, of the truth."
"We speak openly to the empire. ... We say 'devil' to the devil's face," he said.
Chavez's allies in the National Assembly gave initial approval Tuesday night to the so-called enabling law that would grant decree powers, and are expected to give the final OK this week.
Chavez would likely not be granted decree powers by the incoming National Assembly, where 66 opposition lawmakers in the 165-seat congress form a bloc large enough to disrupt approval of some types of laws and Supreme Court appointments.
Anticipating that shift, pro-Chavez lawmakers earlier this month appointed nine new Supreme Court justices who will serve for 12 years, reinforcing the dominance of judges widely seen as friendly to his government.
Opposition leaders say the decree measure shows Chavez's democratic veneer is eroding, and argue the current legislature should not grant such powers extending beyond its mandate.
During a visit to Washington, opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez said the government aims "to diminish the impact of the new National Assembly."
Chavez, meanwhile, says he plans to be decreeing laws through the holidays to speed housing construction and raise taxes to cope with recent torrential rains. The timing could allow Chavez to slip through potentially controversial measures during the Christmas lull.
The National Assembly has already extended its session past the usual holiday break to consider several bills. Lawmakers on Wednesday gave initial approval to a revised telecommunications law that could put at risk the broadcast license of the country's last stridently anti-Chavez television channel, Globovision.
Lawmakers are also considering extending the "Social Responsibility Law" for broadcast media to the Internet, banning messages "that could incite or promote hatred," are aimed at creating "anxiety" in the population or "disrespect public authorities."
Both bills have drawn strong criticism from press freedom groups.
Chavez defended the Internet regulations. "We have to protect our people... from the campaign of war, from the incitement of hatred, the incitement ... of murder, of crime," he said.
It is unclear how the government would enforce the regulations, or what the penalties would be.
Chavez also urged the National Assembly to approve a bill to crack down on foreign funding for non-governmental organizations.
"They receive millions of dollars," he said. "They break laws, they don't pay taxes and they also use it to ... sabotage the country, to prepare acts of destabilization, of permanent attack against the institutions of the country. That can't be permitted."
Venezuelan human rights groups have raised concerns about the proposal to restrict their funding, saying if all international support is banned it would harm many groups and put some at risk of disappearing.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.