(New York Times)
CARACAS, Venezuela — The National Assembly has approved a sweeping set of laws that impose penalties for spreading political dissent on the Internet, grant decree powers to President Hugo Chávez for 18 months and prevent legislators from breaking with his political movement.
Despite an outcry here by critics, pro-Chávez lawmakers rapidly approved the measures in the closing weeks of the year, before a less pliant legislature convenes next month with a bigger opposition presence.
The laws are not particularly surprising. Legislators have repeatedly granted decree powers to Mr. Chávez, and a new measure curbing university autonomy had been floated in the past. Another law simply enhances existing legal mechanisms that rights groups contend are used to dissuade the media from explicitly criticizing the government.
Still, the laws reflect a departure from Mr. Chávez’s earlier focus on creating new institutions, like state television networks and universities, that promote the Socialist-inspired ideology of his movement.
In the more recent measures, by contrast, the president and his supporters seemed intent on limiting the influence of entities where opposition to his government could gather steam. In that vein, one of the new laws prohibits political parties and nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, from receiving money from abroad.
“Whereas before Chávez was largely content in creating parallel institutions, here the intent is far more focused on replacing or significantly refashioning existing institutions like universities, political parties and the media,” said Alejandro Velasco, a historian at New York University who specializes in Venezuela.
While the laws were approved during a lull in popular attention as much of Venezuela shut down for the holidays, their scope and ambition provoked a sharp public reaction here, including unusually forceful protests this week by students, who were dispersed by soldiers firing water cannons and rubber bullets.
“One has to say it clearly: a new dictatorial model is being imposed in Venezuela,” said Ismael García, a prominent leftist legislator who broke with Mr. Chávez in 2007.
One of the measures approved this month punishes legislators for switching political parties, effectively prohibiting lawmakers like Mr. García from peeling away from Mr. Chávez’s coalition to the opposition. The law describes such a move as “fraud” that could disqualify defectors from holding public office.
Iris Varela, a lawmaker from Mr. Chávez’s United Socialist Party, said the law was needed to prevent opposition legislators from being elected on the president’s ticket, “so later they can betray.”
Opposition leaders said the law, along with several other new measures, was unconstitutional. But with Venezuela’s legal system tightly controlled by pro-Chávez judges who rarely rule against the president, it is unclear how a challenge would gain headway in the courts.
Beyond the vote granting broad decree powers to Mr. Chávez, enabling him to enact new laws and bypass the National Assembly on issues like public security and finances, the lame-duck National Assembly also placed procedural restrictions on the new legislature, in which the opposition is expected to account for about 40 percent of the body.
Lawmakers will now be allowed to take the floor to speak for a bill for only 10 minutes, down from 15. Those speaking against a bill will have just three minutes, down from five. The departing legislature also restricted broadcasts of parliamentary debates to state television.
While Venezuela’s major political institutions have been controlled by Mr. Chávez’s followers for some time, the ease with which the legislature approved the laws, with relatively little debate among its own members and virtual silence within the country’s legal system, surprised some observers.
“In Venezuela, the law is destroyed by the law, the judicial system is destroyed by the judicial system and the Parliament is destroyed by the Parliament,” said Fernando Mires, a Chilean historian and philosopher who closely follows Venezuelan events, in an essay examining the new legislation.
Others here said the opposition’s condemnation of the new laws was misleading and overly dramatic.
“The opposition, practically from the outset of Chávez’s presidency over 10 years ago, has been claiming that dictatorial rule is imminent,” said Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Oriente University in eastern Venezuela. “It just hasn’t turned out that way.”
Mr. Ellner said one of the new laws, the measure prohibiting nongovernmental groups from receiving foreign money, had to be seen in the broader context of tensions between Caracas and Washington. The United States has sent millions of dollars to Venezuelan organizations, many of them critical of Mr. Chávez’s government.
“Among Chávez’s followers, concern for national security overshadows the issue of the constructive role that NGOs can play in a democratic setting,” he said, using the abbreviation for nongovernmental organizations.
The extension of an existing broadcast law to include restrictions on Internet messages that “incite or promote disobedience of the current legal order” or “refuse the legitimately constituted authority” has elicited concerns from press freedom groups. The measure introduces fines and the suspension of services for Web sites deemed in violation.
Changes in the broadcast law also portend a showdown with Globovisión, a news network here that remains critical of the government. The government recently took a 20 percent stake in Globovisión, and the law may ease a further shift in control by requiring television station owners to be in Venezuela when reapplying for licenses. Globovisión’s owners recently went into exile in the United States.
Human Rights Watch contended that the new set of laws were a “legislative assault on free speech” that would put Venezuela in violation of international human-rights treaties.