CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez has given himself the equivalent of a big Christmas present in congress: a package of laws that dramatically expand his powers and allow him to undermine opponents in one of the boldest moves of his presidency.
In a single week, he has used an outgoing National Assembly packed with loyalists to gain new abilities to crack down on critics — 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.
Chavez is likely to use the new powers to try to strengthen his political footing as he prepares for the next presidential election in less than two years.
Opponents are denouncing the maneuvers as a virtual "coup d'etat" before a new legislature takes office Jan. 5 with enough opposition lawmakers to prevent passage of some types of major laws.
"What the outgoing National Assembly is doing is taking advantage of Christmas to legislate behind the country's back," said Julio Borges, an opposition congressman-elect. "They're approving a bunch of laws that are aimed solely at concentrating power."
"We are advancing toward a dictatorship," Roman Catholic Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino told Globovision television on Friday. He said officials should consider "the very great responsibility they will have before history and before God if they try to impose a totalitarian dictatorship."
Thousands of students marched in protest Thursday after lawmakers approved a law increasing government authority over universities. Other Chavez opponents have taken to beating on pans at nighttime — a form of protest that has broken out during divisive moments in Chavez's 12-year rule.
The president says the country's "parasitic bourgeoisie" is griping because he is working to dismantle a capitalist system built to favor the rich, and denies making a power grab for himself. He says he needs decree powers to help thousands who lost homes in recent floods and mudslides — and also to attack "structural problems" as he accelerates the pace of his socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution.
Chavez has wondered aloud on national television what all the fuss is about.
"What dictatorship? My God," Chavez told supporters Wednesday night, insisting he has no plans to infringe on freedoms or round up opponents like Chile's Augusto Pinochet and other right-wing dictators once did.
Yet Chavez has steadily amassed power as president while repeatedly winning re-election. He and his allies have filled courts with sympathetic judges, taken tighter control of institutions such as the Central Bank and expropriated a growing list of private companies.
Chavez thrives on confrontation, and the new measures also serve political aims: rallying supporters, keeping the opposition on the defensive and guiding the national debate away from problems such as crime and inflation that he has failed to tame.
The flurry of new laws have been passed by a uniquely subservient legislature that has done Chavez's bidding since the opposition boycotted 2005 elections — a protest that many opponents now concede was ill-advised.
An election law passed by the pro-Chavez legislature redrew some districts and gave greater weight to rural areas, helping his backers win a heavy majority in the new congress despite getting roughly half the popular vote. Even so, opponents will have 67 of the 165 seats — keeping Chavez from the two-thirds majority needed to pass some types of major legislation.
The outgoing National Assembly is also changing its internal rules to the detriment of the opposition. The new rules shorten time for debates and give the majority — Chavez's party — tighter control over procedures.
Another new law allows suspension of any lawmakers who leave a party midterm — a maneuver that aims to counter the defections seen in the current legislature, when about a dozen politicians abandoned the pro-Chavez bloc.
The opposition has long confronted major obstacles. Criminal cases and corruption investigations have sidelined some politicians and driven others into exile. Critics say many cases are motivated by politics, and allege that prosecutors tend to overlook corruption by Chavez allies.
For his part, Chavez has seen his popularity slip due to economic problems and administrative inefficiency. Some believe he is trying to pick up the pace to energize supporters.
"There is discontent in the rank-and-file ... And this is a way to invigorate the rank-and-file, to convince them that the process of change is moving on in spite of all the difficulties," said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East.
Chavez has also used the opportunity to bar foreign funding for nongovernment organizations that defend "political rights." Some say that will hobble human rights groups that depend on donations from abroad.
The law also lets officials fine or impose other sanctions on groups or individuals that invite foreign visitors who publicly make remarks that "offend institutions of the state" or high-ranking officials.
Earlier this month, pro-Chavez deputies also took advantage of their final weeks with a two-thirds majority to appoint nine new Supreme Court justices, reinforcing the dominance of judges widely seen as government-friendly.
Since Dec. 17, the National Assembly has been holding late-night sessions — once until nearly 3 a.m. — to enact that last-minute measures.
First came a law that declares banks to be of "public utility." It is expected to speed up the process if Chavez decides to nationalize more banks. A series of takeovers has given the government control over about 30 percent of the banking sector, while the rest remain in private hands.
Next was a law granting Chavez power to impose laws by decree for the next 18 months. The limits on that power are vague. His decrees can be aimed at alleviating poverty or recent flood damage, at improving transport, housing or public services, at altering land use or changing territorial divisions. He can change tax or financial laws, act on national security, defense or international cooperation. He can impose laws altering the "socio-economic system."
Chavez has so far revealed few specifics about the decrees he plans — except that some of the first ones will raise taxes and speed public housing construction.
New legislation also extends broadcast-type regulations to the Internet, barring messages that "disrespect public authorities," ''incite or promote hatred" or crimes, or that could create "anxiety in the citizenry or alter public order."
Opponents say that could be interpreted to bar almost any criticism of the government, and may have a chilling effect on what Venezuelans are willing to post online.
Another law makes it easier for the government to revoke the licenses of television and radio stations, and stiffens fines for violating regulations. One critical TV channel was already pushed off the air in 2007, and some Venezuelans fear the last stridently anti-Chavez channel, Globovision, could be next.
The Venezuelan satirical website El Chiguire Bipolar suggested Chavez was seeking "super powers" and will now be able to "read the thoughts of his enemies." A doctored photo depicted Chavez with red laser-like beams shooting from his eyes.
For some Venezuelans, the joke touches on very real fears.
"It's total control that he has," said Cruz Herrera, a 46-year-old baby sitter. "This is headed toward what we all see and know: a dictatorship ... We don't know how much we'll be able to take. We Venezuelans need to wake up."
Still, Chavez remains hugely popular in Venezuela, and many supporters appear to be standing by him.
"What the president is doing is helping people, looking for solutions," said Cesar Palacio, a 43-year-old security guard. "If this were a dictatorship, the country wouldn't be as free as it is."
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.