On Wednesday, it was announced that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has asked the National Assembly to grant him “special powers” to enact laws by decree for a period of one year. Of the Assembly’s 165 lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of which are pro-Chavez supporters, only 5 voted against the measure. Final approval of the initiative is expected early next week. If granted, this would be the fourth time in Chavez’s 12-year reign that he would be given permission to bypass Venezuela’s legislative body.
“The measures we have to take are deep. Almost 40 percent of the country was affected” (by heavy rains), said Vice President Elias Jaua. Those rains, which caused severe flooding and and heavy mudslides have forced over 120,000 newly-homeless Venezuelans in to public shelters. The initial decrees Chavez is aiming to impose unilaterally include laws to streamline the process of building roads and housing, and an indeterminate raise of the nation’s value-added tax, which is currently 12%. “The situation continues to be critical, and we need to tend to it with a set of laws,” said Chavez, who is also seeking powers to issue additional decrees in the country’s “socio-economic system.” According to the Associated Press, this category includes telecommunications, the banking system, information technology, the military, rural and urban land use, and a new geographical regionalization of the country. According to Chavez himself, “all of these laws will be within the framework of the constitution.”
The constitution to which Chavez is referring is the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999, which replaced the constitution enacted in 1961, which had been in effect longer than any other. Venezuela has had 26 constitutions between 1811 and 1961 . On December 15th, 1999, 71.8% of the voters approved the new constitution, although 55.6% abstained from voting. According to constitutional lawyer Tulio Álvarez, the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 “does not set any limits on the scope and duration of any special powers granted by law to the president, and that “Article 203 says that legislators will define the scope and duration of any special powers.” He adds that the new National Assembly which convenes on January 5, 2011 could “remove/suspend any special powers granted to Chavez by the current assembly, but would require at least 99 votes to do so. However, the opposition does not have 99 votes in the new assembly.”
The three previous opportunities Chavez was granted to bypass the National Assembly occurred in 1999, 2001, and 2007. In 1999, Chavez, despite fierce opposition from congress, enacted two new tax laws and a revision of the income tax code. In 2001, he decreed 49 additional laws, including “agrarian reform measures” and a law sharply increasing taxes on foreign oil companies. The Hydrocarbons Law raised the royalty rate oil companies were paying the country from 16.6% to 30%, and increased stake given to the Venezuelan nation on any oil industry investment, to 51%, effectively nationalizing the industry. In 2007, Chavez was granted 18 months of “special powers” which he used to seize control of privately run oil fields, nationalize telecommunications, electricity and cement companies and impose still more taxes.
In 2009, Chavez was granted permission to nationalize two Venezuela coffee companies which were accused of “acting as monopolies and flouting price controls by smuggling coffee into Colombia.” Iron companies were also nationalized in 2009. “Nationalize the iron briquette sector, there is nothing to discuss,” Chavez announced on national television.
Chavez opponents blasted this latest move, with one daily newspaper editor, Teodoro Petkoff, of Tal Cual there referring to it as a “Christmas ambush” and further characterizing it as a “brutal attack … against democratic life.” Petkoff may get far less opportunity to criticize Chavez in the future: according to published reports, Mr. Chavez is seeking new laws to further regulate the Internet and Globovision, the country’s last remaining TV station vigorously opposed to the his agenda. He is also urging lawmakers to pass a law barring non-governmental organizations (read human rights groups) from securing additional funding from the United States.