Venezuelan lawmakers granted President Hugo Chavez broad powers Friday to enact laws by decree, undermining the clout of a new congress that takes office next month with a bigger opposition bloc.
Chavez opponents condemned the move as a power grab, saying the law gives him a blank check to rule without consulting lawmakers. The National Assembly approved the special powers for 18 months.
A new congress goes into session Jan. 5 with an opposition contingent large enough to hinder approval of some types of major laws.
Chavez has argued he needs decree powers to fast-track funds to help the victims of recent floods and landslides, and also to hasten Venezuela's transition to a socialist state.
He taunted his opponents in a televised speech Friday night, saying now that he has decree powers they won't be able to block his laws.
"You won't be able to make a single law, 'pitiyanquis,'" Chavez said, using one of his favorite insults, which refers to U.S. collaborators and translates as "little Yankees." ''We're going to see how you make laws now."
The president's critics have denounced the decree powers as one of many controversial measures being pushed through in the final weeks of a lame-duck congress.
Another measure under discussion Friday was the revised "Social Responsibility Law," which would impose broadcast-type regulations on the Internet and ban online messages "that could incite or promote hatred," create "anxiety" in the population or "disrespect public authorities."
Questions remain about how the Internet regulations would be enforced.
The law granting Chavez decree powers — for the fourth time in his nearly 12-year presidency — also will allow him to unilaterally enact measures involving telecommunications, the banking system, information technology, the military, rural and urban land use and the country's "socio-economic system."
Among the planned decrees already announced, Chavez intends to increase the value-added tax, now 12 percent, to raise funds for coping with the disaster caused by weeks of heavy rains. The government is erecting tents to house thousands left homeless and is accelerating public housing construction.
Critics accuse Chavez of taking advantage of the disaster to tighten his grip on power, saying he is violating the constitution while trying to impose a Cuba-style system.
Lawmaker Pastora Medina, a former Chavez ally who turned against him, condemned the decree powers saying the president already "has the budget and the resources to solve the problems."
Newly elected opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said Chavez is trying to use the Christmas lull when Venezuelans are focused on other matters to push through "laws that have one single purpose: to give more power to the government and take power away from the people."
Borges said the opposition will keep fighting and that "the Cuban project is going to fail."
Chavez has enjoyed near total control of the National Assembly since the opposition boycotted 2005 elections.
That is set to change when the new congress takes office with 67 of the 165 seats controlled by the opposition — enough to prevent Chavez from having the two-thirds majority needed to approve some types of major legislation and to confirm Supreme Court justices.
Anticipating that shift, pro-Chavez lawmakers earlier this month appointed nine new Supreme Court justices, reinforcing the dominance of judges widely seen as friendly to his government.
Starting in January, the opposition lawmakers "will have their space, they must be allowed to," Chavez said. "There's going to be debate and that will be interesting."
National Assembly President Cilia Flores said the approval of decree powers shows the outgoing legislature's "revolutionary commitment."
Lawmakers on Friday also approved a separate law that describes banking as a "public service" and clears the way for increased state intervention in the sector. Venezuela's private banks make up about 70 percent of the industry, while the government controls the rest.
Chavez, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with efforts to take over swaths of farmland. On Friday, officials and troops seized 47 private ranches in western Venezuela. Chavez has ordered the expropriation of a growing list of businesses, and the government says it has seized more than 5.6 million acres (2.3 million hectares) of rural land.
The flurry of radical moves by Chavez is increasing tensions with the opposition, and is likely to make the coming year a contentious one as he lays the groundwork for his 2012 re-election bid.
"The political temperature is going to be much higher in 2011," said Ricardo Sucre, a Venezuelan political analyst. Sucre said Chavez's latest moves seem aimed at intimidating opponents and neutralizing potential obstacles ahead of the presidential race.
Chavez's popularity has declined in the past two years amid a recession and 27 percent inflation. In September legislative elections, the pro- and anti-Chavez camps emerged with a nearly even split of the popular vote.
Peruvian writer Alvaro Vargas Llosa — son of Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and a prominent international Chavez critic — said the president often seems to seek confrontation when he "has found himself in squeezes, has found himself in an adverse scenario."
The decree powers also are aggravating long-standing tensions between Chavez and Washington. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday that Chavez "seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers."
Chavez dismissed that criticism, saying that "it's the empire and its permanent aggressions, its threats."
Chavez was previously granted decree powers by lawmakers in 1999, 2001 and 2007.
The last time, he used them for 18 months to enact more than 60 laws, seizing control of privately run oil fields, changing financial regulations, imposing new taxes and nationalizing telecommunications, electricity and cement companies.