The Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — As he starts his new six-year term, Hugo Chavez has just about everything a president could want: popular support, a marginalized opposition, a friendly congress and a booming economy.
Now, he's about to become even more powerful. The Chavez supporting National Assembly is poised to approve a "mother law" as early as Wednesday — enabling him to remake society by presidential decree.
In its latest draft, the law would allow Chavez to dictate measures for 18 months in 11 broad areas, from the "economic and social sphere" to the "transformation of state institutions."
Chavez calls it a new era of "maximum revolution," setting the tone for months of upheaval as he plans to nationalize companies, impose new taxes on the rich and reorient schools to teach "socialist values." With near-religious fervor and plenty of oil wealth, Chavez is mobilizing millions of Venezuelans, intent on creating a more egalitarian society.
Already, profound changes can be seen throughout Venezuela. Those who felt left out of the old system are thrilled at the prospect of having a voice in politics. Others are horrified, predicting that doors will close on their personal freedoms under one-man rule, although exactly what Chavez will do with his decree power remains unclear.
Every adult Venezuelan, it seems, is being forced to answer an existential question: where do they fit in this revolution? Some already fear they won't fit at all.
'Power of the revolution'
On a floodlit playground, neighbors meeting to discuss the new mechanics of power in Venezuela are feeling empowered by Chavez. As participants in a new Communal Council, they will get a direct say in how to spend a flood of new money on local projects from public housing to better electricity to fixing potholes -- decisions previously made by local governments.
"The country is headed for transformation, linked directly to all of us," Freddy Alvarez said into the microphone, describing the coming presidential decrees as a crucial step that will bring new "power to communities."
Each assembly will get up to $56,000 (euro43,340) in spending money this year, for a total of about $1.8 billion (euro1.39 billion) nationwide.
Not everyone in this crowd is a Chavez supporter, and the gathering in working-class mountain town of El Junquito has the informal feel of a neighbors association or town hall meeting. But Chavez has publicly compared the councils to the people's assemblies or "soviets" formed during the Russian revolution.
"All of the power to the Communal Councils, power to the people," Chavez said in a recent televised speech. "It is the power of the revolution."
Outside the Spanish Embassy, dozens line up with documents in hand. Many plan brief trips for tourism or study, but Henry Krakower is thinking darker thoughts. He wants a passport for his 10-year-old son in case they need to leave for good.
'We're headed toward totalitarianism'
"I don't really know what all the coming changes are, but I don't think it's the best idea to give all the power to a single person for him to decide on my behalf," says Krakower, the son of a Spanish immigrant and a Polish concentration camp survivor who found a haven in Venezuela after World War II.
Government officials insist there will be total freedom of religion and speech and that private property will be safe, but the Krakowers aren't so sure. Listening to Chavez day after day for clues to what lies ahead, they worry about coming economic restrictions and ideology in education. At their son's private Jewish school, some parents are talking about how and when to leave the country.
"I think the president is going to do what he wants to do, because he will have all the power to decide on all things," Krakower says. "I think we're headed toward totalitarianism."
In newspapers lately, full-page state ads with a white star on a red background list the five engines driving Chavez's self-styled revolution, from a "New Geometry of Power" to "Constitutional Reform" that could include ending presidential term limits.
"Nothing stops the revolution!" reads the ad, a sobering thought for the wealthy who live in walled enclaves, belong to exclusive golf clubs and dine at the best restaurants. Though Chavez insists he will respect private property, he plans a new "luxury" tax on everything from second homes to art collections, and the rich will undoubtedly feel the pinch.
For now, the economy is flush with oil money and business is brisk at Caracas shopping malls. But among whistle-blowing anti-Chavez protesters, middle-class retiree Teresa Cifontes grimaces at what she sees coming: "Within one year, complete communism."
Cifontes, 65, is so dismayed at the changes that she can't tolerate Chavez's admirers -- even within her own family. Her nine brothers and sisters all used to attend family get-togethers, but now three no longer come because their support for Chavez sparks heated arguments.
"They're blind," she says bitterly. "What he's forming is a dictatorship."
Short of a drastic fall in global oil prices, which appears unlikely, there seems to be little or nothing that can stop these changes in Venezuela. The Supreme Court's president, Omar Mora Diaz, has welcomed Chavez's plan to legislate by decree. Street protests have been small and scattered, and the complaints of opposition politicians, left without a vote since boycotting 2005 congressional elections, are largely disregarded by the pro-Chavez majority.
Those who re-elected Chavez by a wide margin in December often say Venezuela's democracy is healthier than ever.
"We couldn't have more democracy," says Danny Albarran, one of several women in the slum of San Juan who like what they're getting from this revolution: free meals for schoolchildren, free checkups from a Cuban doctor and a state-run fitness program for the elderly.
"The president's intentions are very good. He wants a country where everything functions well," says Lourdes Mujica, a disabled woman with rheumatoid arthritis who receives free treatment, adult education classes and monthly cash benefits of $238 (euro184.20).
The public role in how Chavez uses the "enabling law" remains unclear, but lawmakers have been holding assemblies to gather public input.
"If there is no popular participation, there will be no socialism," lawmaker Dario Vivas said at one meeting. "Socialism is, definitively, giving power to the people."