Chávez Signs 26 Law-Decrees on Final Day of Enabling Law Power

On the final day of the 18-month period during which the Venezuelan National Assembly granted President Hugo Chávez the power to pass laws by decree, Chávez signed 26 new laws regulating the armed forces, public administration, social security system, banks, agricultural production, and the tourism industry.

The government says the laws seek to increase state management of “strategic” sectors of the national economy and public institutions that are considered vital for ensuring the well-being of all Venezuelans, in the context of progress toward “21st Century Socialism.” Full texts of the laws were made public Monday.

“While Chávez is here, it is the People who command, not the oligarchy,” Chávez said on his Sunday talk show Aló Presidente, broadcast from Caicara del Orinoco in southeastern Venezuela, where several new infrastructure projects are underway. “But the opposition does not understand this… the enabling laws are the laws of the liberation of Venezuela.”

Chávez explained that the laws are part of the state’s plans to build up a “great public sector” that was “subordinated” in the past, but will now rival the private sector and prioritize the social good, in line with both international and national legal standards.

Opposition leaders criticized the “autocratic” and “non-consultative” process by which the laws were created and called on the opposition to prevail in upcoming regional and local elections in order to impede Chávez’s political project.

Julio Borges, the leader of Primero Justicia, one of the largest opposition parties, called the decrees a “new wake up call to Venezuelans” and suggested that the enabling law was an effort by the government to pass as “contraband” the constitutional reforms that were voted down by a slim margin last December.

In response, Vice President Ramón Carrizalez asserted Monday that the Enabling Law and Chávez’s decrees were in accordance with the national constitution, which was passed by popular vote in 1999, Chávez’s first year in office.

Many of the concepts of the constitutional reforms proposed in 2007 are present in the decreed laws, because many of them were originally written with the expectation that the reform would be approved by voters, but the laws were later changed so as to be in line with the current constitution, Carrizalez assured.

Also, many of the laws signed by the president last Thursday had been proposed early on in the Enabling Law period and debated up until last week. According to the Agriculture and Land Minister, Elias Jaua, the six laws pertaining to agriculture “included more than a year of debate with specialists, functionaries, social groups, and discussions with cabinet ministers.”

According to Vice President Carrizalez, 16 proposed laws were not decreed because they were still being discussed. These include laws governing firearms and explosives, cooperative businesses, and the recently nationalized Bank of Venezuela.

National Assembly Legislator and former President of the Constitutional Reform Commission Carlos Escarrá assured Monday that these 16 laws will be thoroughly debated and voted on by the National Assembly in the coming months.

Some opposition leaders claim that according to Article 203 of the Constitution, the president is not allowed to decree organic laws (which hold the highest legal stature under the constitution). In response, Carrizalez said Article 203 permits the president to decree organic laws as long as the laws are first passed through the Supreme Court to test their constitutionality.

Venezuela’s Presidential Counsel, Gladys Gutierrez Alvarado, confirmed Monday that all of the organic laws decreed by President Chávez in the past 18 months were first turned over to the Supreme Court for approval, as required by the constitution.

The only organic law proposed by Chávez that was not approved as organic by the Supreme Court was the Labor Stability Law in August 2007, which sought to outlaw unjustified firings.

Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales said the Labor Stability Law “does not regulate in a direct way the exercise of constitutional or legal rights to work, but rather reinforces or protects a tangential aspect of the rights consecrated in article 87 of the Constitution,” so it does not qualify as organic, but rather as a law of lower stature.

Last Thursday’s announcement brought to 67 the total number of laws decreed since the National Assembly passed the Enabling Law in January 2007. Among these were monetary conversion, the nationalization of the steel, cement, oil, and electricity sectors, an intelligence law that was later revoked, the promotion of small and medium-sized industries and other new types of state or community-run social production enterprises, the reorganization of the national armed forces, the reorganization of national finance institutions, reforms of public administration laws aimed at trimming back bureaucracy and eliminating corruption, price controls, agricultural development policy, and food supply chain controls.

The last time Chávez had the power to pass laws by decree was in 2001, when he also passed laws on the last of the enabling law power. At that time, the president decreed 49 laws, including land reform and fishing laws that outraged large property owners and industrial fishing companies. These laws were the target of successive general strikes led by managers and some union leaders between 2001 and 2003, and a coup d’état led by the opposition and backed by the U.S. in April 2002.