Venezuelan Legislature Allows President to Pass Laws by Decree for 18 Months

Venezuela’s National Assembly passed a so-called “enabling law” today, which will allow President Chavez to pass laws by decree in eleven different areas for a period of 18 months. Chavez had asked for the enabling law earlier this month, saying it is needed to accelerate the process of transforming Venezuela’s state and economy into “21st century socialism.”

By Gregory Wilpert –
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Caracas, January 31, 2007 (— Venezuela’s National Assembly passed a so-called “enabling law” today, which will allow President Chavez to pass laws by decree in eleven different areas for a period of 18 months. Chavez had asked for the enabling law earlier this month, saying it is needed to accelerate the process of transforming Venezuela’s state and economy into “21st century socialism.”

This is the third time Chavez has received such authorization during his presidency and Chavez is the fifth Venezuelan president to take advantage of this power, which both the 1961 and the 1999 constitutions permit.

The enabling law, which Chavez has called the “mother law” for the laws that are to help bring about 21st century socialism, was passed in an outdoor meeting of the National Assembly today. In the course of the meeting, to which the public had open access, various representatives of the pro-Chavez coalition explained why they supported the law.

Most legislators talked about how they trusted Chavez to pass laws that would increase democracy in Venezuela and the need to act rapidly because this is what the Venezuelan people are expecting.

The second Vice-President of the national assembly, Roberto Hernandez, said, “We are living in a revolutionary time and a revolution is characterized by having as its fundamental objective social justice and social justice, for revolutionaries, cannot wait… We are promising justice for today and not for the future.”

Hernandez added, “We in the National Assembly do not vacillate in giving the president the enabling law to legislate… The laws that Hugo Chavez will decree are laws destined to satisfy the immense majority [of Venezuelans.”

Venezuela’s Vice-President, Jorge Rodriguez, also attended the session, in representation of the President, who had first proposed the enabling law three weeks ago. Rodriguez belittled the opposition’s notion that the enabling law would provide Chavez with dictatorial or totalitarian powers.

Instead, Rodriguez asked, "What kind of a dictatorship is this?" The enabling law "only serves to sow democracy and peace," said Rodriguez in allusion to the law’s many references to increasing grassroots participation in the state. "Dictatorship is what there used to be," he added. "We want to impose the dictatorship of a true democracy."

Various representatives of social movement groups were also given an opportunity to express their support for the law, such as a representative from a women’s association, another from a disabled persons’ association, one from a cooperative association, and one from a student association, among others.

After the law was passed, various opposition leaders stated that this law now definitely makes Chavez into a dictator. For example, the president of the former governing Christian Democratic party Copei, Eduardo Fernandez, said on Globovision TV, “The enabling law converts the congress into a house of seconders and the President of the Republic into a dictator.”

Other opposition leaders, such as Antonio Ledezma of the party Brave People’s Alliance, took the issue to country’s Supreme Court with the argument that it is unconstitutional because enabling laws are supposed to be passed only for emergency situations. This interpretation of the constitution, though, is not supported by a close reading of article 203 of the constitution, which merely provides a definition of enabling laws and that it has to be passed by a three-fifthe majority, without specifying anything about emergency situations.

According to the AP, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs Thomas Shannon took the matter far more casually. When asked about the enabling law while in Colombia, Shannon told reporters, "It's something valid under the constitution. … As with any tool of democracy, it depends how it is used," he added. "At the end of the day, it's not a question for the United States or for other countries, but for Venezuela."

The eleven areas where Chavez will be allowed to pass laws for the next 18 months are:

  1. Transformation of the state, where laws are to be passed that make the state more efficient, honest, participatory, rational, and transparent.
  2. Popular (grassroots) participation, in the economic and social policies of the state, via planning, social comptrol, and the direct exercise of popular sovereignty.
  3. Essential values for the exercise of public functions, so that corruption would be eradicated definitively, the strengthening of ethics, and the formation of public servants.
  4. In the area of economic and social policy, so as to create a new sustainable economic and social model. The goal is to achieve equality and the equitable distribution of wealth through investment in health care, education, and social security.
  5. Finances and taxation, to modernize the regulatory system in the monetary, banking, insurance, and tax systems.
  6. Citizen and judicial security, for the improvement of citizen identification, migration control, and the fight against impunity.
  7. Science and technology, so it is developed to satisfy the needs of education, health, environment, biodiversity, industrialization, quality of life, security, and defense.
  8. Territorial order, for a new distribution and occupation of subnational space, so as to improve the activities of the state and of endogenous development.
  9. Security and defense, for the development of the structure and organization of the Armed Forces.
  10. Infrastructure, transport, and services, to promote the existing human and industrial potential for the optimization of land, rail, sea, river, and air transportation, as well as of telecommunications and information technology.
  11. Energy sector, so that oil production in the Orinoco Oil Belt may be nationalized and turned into joint ventures, tax rates changed, and electricity companies nationalized, among other things.

The last time Chavez was granted an enabling law was in the year 2000 to adjust the country’s laws to the just passed 1999 constitution. At that time 49 laws were passed as law decrees. Vice-President Jorge Rodriguez, who is in charge of overseeing the development of the law decrees suggested last week that a similar number of laws could be passed this time around. He also said that the first drafts of the new laws would be ready in three months.

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