Critics of Venezuela's socialist president, Hugo Chavez, "finally feel vindicated (again)", Venezuelanalysis.com editor Gregory Wilpert wrote in a February 6 comment piece. "The Venezuelan dictatorship that they have been predicting for the past eight years has, according to them, finally come to pass — for the sixth or so time."
The cause of the latest cries about a "Chavez dictatorship" from the usual suspects — the corporate-owned media around the world, the US government and US-funded opposition groups inside Venezuela — was the legislation passed on January 31 by Venezuela's National Assembly, in an outdoor session with the public watching on, of an "enabling law". This law grants Chavez — re-elected in December with 63% support and the highest number of votes in Venezuelan history — the right to pass legislation by decree in relation to 11 areas for a period of 18 months.
Evoking images of Chavez taking absolute power, headlines around the world screamed that Chavez was now going to "rule by decree". US President George Bush told Fox News the day the law was passed that he was "concerned about Venezuelans, about decreasing democratic institutions". A leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party told the anti-Chavez TV station Globovision the same day that "The enabling law converts ... the president of the Republic into a dictator".
As Wilpert points out, there is nothing new in these claims. They have been made by the Venezuelan opposition and US government repeatedly during Chavez's eight years as president. However they "kept having to revise their estimates for when this dictatorship would set in". On the contrary, the Chavez government has moved to extend democracy, using a series of referendums and the election of a constituent assembly to bring in a new constitution in 1999 that extends democracy by providing the means for the population to directly participate in governing the country.
The result is that, according to Chilean-based polling company Latinobarometro, the number of Venezuelans satisfied with their democracy has risen from 32% when Chavez was first elected in 1998, to 57% in 2006 — well above the 38% Latin American average.
Bush revealed his real agenda to Fox News, adding his "concern" about "the nationalisations that could take place or not". Following his re-election on an explicit platform of constructing socialism, Chavez announced his intention to reverse privatisations carried out by previous governments, including nationalising the largest telecommunications company (CANTV) and the electricity sector and forcing oil corporations in the Orinoco Belt onto joint ventures in which the state-run oil company would have at least 60% control. US corporations have the largest holdings in CANTV and in the largest electricity company to be nationalised. Oil giants whose investments will be affected include ExxonMobil and Chevron.
The Bush administration's real concern is that Chavez is leading an increasingly popular revolution aiming to use the nation's wealth to address the problems of the poor majority. Even the corporate media have had to acknowledge at least some of the gains, and the resulting popularity of Chavez, that have brought free health care and education, discounted food, cheap credit to the poor, land to previously landless peasants, and repeated increases in the minimum wage and other pro-worker measures. These measures have been accompanied by mass organisation and empowerment of the previously excluded poor majority as the revolution has attempted to implement Chavez's slogan that to eradicate poverty "you must give power to the poor".
Before the presidential election, Chavez said the vote would be a referendum on building socialism in Venezuela, and subsequently announced his intention to deepen the struggle to create a socialist economy run democratically according to the interests of society. In order to carry this out Chavez has called for an "explosion" of popular power, with an expansion in number and power of the grassroots communal councils.
Formed last year, each of these councils is based on 200-400 families. The elected members of the councils are immediately recallable and work on a volunteer basis. The highest decision-making body remains the general assembly of all members of the community. Controlling funds directly, these councils are increasingly taking control over the government's pro-poor programs in local areas. The aim of the councils is to draw the entire population into control over public affairs — participation is not limited to supporters of Chavez.
One area the National Assembly granted Chavez the right to legislate around is providing the legal framework for these councils to increasingly take over state administration, which is currently in the hands of a corrupt bureaucracy that slows down or openly sabotages the many of the government's revolutionary measures. The government has launched a campaign to expand the number of communal councils from 13,000 to as many as 50,000 across the country. Chavez has called for communal councils to elect representatives to regional bodies, opening the way for the councils to form the base of a completely new state structure controlled from the ground up.
There is also legislation that has been introduced into the National Assembly that would enable the formation of workers' councils in both private and public workplaces across the country. These would complement the communal councils, by giving workers control over economic production.
While it isn't hard to see the real agenda of the US government and pro-capitalist opposition groups, even some friends of the Venezuelan revolution have expressed concern over the power the enabling law grants Chavez.
However, the reality of the law is very different from the way the corporate media has reported it. Even US State Department spokesperson Thomas Shannon acknowledged that the enabling law is "something valid under the constitution ... At the end of day it's not a question for the United States or for any other country, but for Venezuela."
Not only is the legislation allowed for in the constitution, it was also used by four Venezuelan presidents before Chavez. As these presidents governed on behalf of corporate interests, none of the forces currently up in arms showed any concern. Also, Chavez was granted an enabling law in 2000. Far from leading to a dictatorship, Chavez used the power to pass 49 pro-poor laws that, as Wilpert points out, "democratised land ownership and access to credit in Venezuela, amongst other things".
Chavez has not been granted the right to decree whatever he chooses. He remains bound by the limits of the constitution, and the Supreme Court has the power to rule on whether any law passed by Chavez violates the constitution. The National Assembly retains the right to modify or repeal any law Chavez decrees.
Most important, as Chavez pointed out at his February 1 press conference, under Venezuela's constitution, which Chavez insisted was "the broadest and most democratic in the world", any law, including any law Chavez passes by decree, can be overturned by the people via a national referendum.
Wilpert explained that under Article 74, a referendum to annul any legislation can be held if 10% of the electorate sign a petition calling for it. For laws passed by decree, that percentage is only 5%. This means in Venezuela a petition signed by around 800,000 registered voters would force a referendum on any law Chavez passes.
This is a dramatic extension of democracy that doesn't exist in most countries, where pro-corporate politicians can force through highly unpopular legislation with the citizens having no legal recourse. This is combined in Venezuela with the right to recall any elected official half way through their term. The opposition used this in 2004 against Chavez, who won the subsequent referendum with just under 60% of the vote.
Calling Bush a war criminal who should be jailed, Chavez said: "If only the United States had a democracy like Venezuela's. If only the people of the United States had the power to call a recall referendum, [Bush] would be voted out of the US government straight away."
But most significant is the parameters set out for Chavez to pass decrees. These specifically cover changing Venezuela's legal framework to enable a significant increase in participatory democracy and the ability to control public administration. They also include measures to tackle the problem of corruption and to introduce economic changes such as the announced nationalisations and changing the tax system to make the rich pay a fairer share.
In other words, the measures Chavez will rule on aim to increase democracy and implement the political program he was elected to carry out. The reason why Chavez has been given the power to introduce these changes by decree over a set period of time is the need to make these changes quickly. Among the poor there is growing anger at the way the corrupt bureaucracy frustrate the implementation of radical measures.
Chavez's latest electoral victory and subsequent announcements raised expectations of much needed widespread change. However, these changes cannot occur without breaking the power of the old bureaucracy, and this requires changing the legal framework to allow for the consolidation of a new system of people's power. The process of going through parliament has proven slow and bureaucratic, and not all the pro-Chavez politicians are widely trusted. The enabling law allows the process to speed up.
The economic changes are themselves an increase in democracy — key sectors of the economy previously in the hands of private interests will be able to be controlled by the elected government, and production and distribution of resources in these industries will able to be carried out according to the needs of the people.
This is a profound and democratic revolutionary process that is struggling to create a new system whereby the economy is put at the service of society, not run on behalf of an ultra-rich minority. As part of this, there is a struggle to dramatically extend democracy so that ordinary people, not privileged bureaucrats, control the political system in order to ensure measures in the interests of the majority are carried out. Far from restricting democracy, the enabling law has been formulated as a weapon to advance this struggle.