NYTimes.com Article: Venezuela's Leader Is Seeking Decree Powers to Speed Changes

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Venezuela's Leader Is Seeking Decree Powers to Speed Changes

November 5, 2000


CARACAS, Venezuela, Oct. 30   Hugo Chávez has a six-year presidential
term, a new Constitution drawn up to his specifications and a
sweeping majority in the National Assembly. But he says that is not
enough to assure the success of the "peaceful social revolution" he
promises here. He has now asked for, and seems likely to receive,
additional authority to govern by decree.

 Mr. Chávez, a former army colonel who in 1992 led an unsuccessful
coup attempt, says that to speed up vital economic reforms he needs
to bypass ordinary legislative procedures set up by the

 The new Congress, he said this month, is too busy drafting the
legislation needed to put the new charter into effect for it to
deal with pressing economic issues too.

 The "enabling law" the president proposes would allow him to enact
more than 30 measures now pending and decree others over the next
year. To pass, the measures needs the approval of 60 percent of the
assembly's 165 members, a majority that Mr. Chávez achieved in the
July elections.

 The proposal incorporates mainly technical financial matters,
including banking and insurance regulations. But rules for the
all-important oil and gas sector and some aspects of land reform, a
politically contentious issue, are also included. Mr. Chávez has
said that agricultural land not being used productively should be
confiscated and redistributed to landless peasants.

 Economists and bankers here argue that some checks on and
supervision of the president's ability to spend are also needed.
The Finance Ministry estimates that Venezuela will enjoy a $5
billion windfall from high oil prices this year, and Mr. Chávez has
announced an ambitious program to create 100,000 jobs and expand
public works and social welfare projects.

 In the past, Venezuela , the world's third-largest oil exporter,
has gone on spending sprees whenever oil prices have risen. That
has resulted in high inflation and, when oil prices have fallen
again, social unrest of the sort that created the Fifth Republic
Movement, which brought Mr. Chávez to power.

 Mr. Chávez should be granted only "limited powers for a limited
time," said Gerardo Blyde, an opposition member of the National
Assembly. In addition, Mr. Blyde insists that any concession of
decree authority should specify a list of "inviolable guarantees"
that would be beyond the president's ability to alter.

 Last year, Mr. Chávez successfully demanded that a weak and
discredited Congress grant him similar decree powers in order to
reshape the country's economic structure. He also threatened to
dissolve Congress and to gut the Supreme Court, actions that were
eventually taken by an assembly drafting a new Constitution that
vastly augmented the president's authority.

 For that reason, Mr. Blyde said, "we need independent, not
submissive, powers" to check Mr. Chávez when any "excess" is

 Mr. Chávez's critics see the new decree proposal as one more step
toward a political system that centralizes power and lacks
accountability. They have already complained that new procedures to
select judges, prosecutors and a comptroller general are partisan
and exclusionist.

 "What do you want?" Manuel Quijada, the official supervising the
judicial selection process, asked the daily El Universal this week.
If "you remained silent during 40 years of magistrates" beholden to
the two traditional parties that Mr. Chávez displaced, he said,
"then you should be able to put up with those of the Fifth Republic
Movement for 12 years," the period Mr. Chávez has said he intends
to remain in power.

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