WASHINGTON - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is using autocratic powers to subvert the will of the people, the U.S. State Department said Wednesday after the socialist leader said he would rule by decree for a year.
On Thursday, Venezuela's National Assembly is due to grant Chavez the authority to fast-track laws in a move that undermines a bloc of opposition lawmakers who join parliament next month.
Chavez, a leading U.S. critic, has ruled by decree three times before during his 11 years in power and says he needs the authority again to deal with a national emergency caused by floods that killed 40 people and left almost 140,000 homeless.
"This is the fourth time that President Chavez has employed one of these decrees. He seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers," State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley said.
Once passed, Chavez will be able to issue decrees across a wide range of areas including housing, land, finances and security. On Monday, he announced a sales tax hike as among the decrees and analysts expect new economic measures are likely.
Private banks and property owners are bracing themselves for another wave of nationalizations by the Cuba ally, who has taken Venezuela down a more radical route in an effort to entrench "21st century socialism."
"What he is doing here, we believe, is, you know, subverting the will of the Venezuela people," Crowley said.
Chavez opponents are furious about the move. There have been small-scale protests and skirmishes outside the National Assembly.
The Organization of American States' rights body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, also criticized the steps taken by Chavez to rush through controversial legislation, including rules that put pressure on an opposition TV station, limits on Internet content and restrictions on foreign funding of nongovernmental groups.
Supporters of Chavez say he is redressing years of imbalance and has encouraged democracy by giving power and funds to grass-roots groups. (Reporting and writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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