Fernando Llano  /  AP
A Venezuelan woman in the capital Caracas buys food at a government-run supermarket, where prices are subsidized by the country's oil wealth and President Hugo Chavez's social programs.
updated 1/30/2007 3:27:16 AM ET 2007-01-30T08:27:16

Hugo Chavez has just about everything a president could want: popular support, a marginalized opposition, congress firmly on his side and a booming economy as he starts his new six-year term.

Now, he's about to become even more powerful — the all-Chavista 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 power remains unclear.

On a floodlit playground, neighbors meeting to discuss the new mechanics of power are feeling empowered by Chavez. As participants in a new Communal Council, they will get a direct say in spending on 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 says into the microphone, describing the coming presidential decrees as a crucial step that will bring new "power to communities."

Each local council will get up to $56,000 in spending money this year, for a total of about $1.8 billion nationwide.

Not everyone in the crowd is a Chavez supporter, and the gathering in the working-class mountain town of El Junquito has the feel of a 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 speech. "It is the power of the revolution."

Some seek foreign passports
Outside the Spanish Embassy, dozens line up with documents in hand. Many plan 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.

"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 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 for clues to what lies ahead, they worry about 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, full-page state ads 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 Chavismo sparks heated arguments.

"They're blind," she says bitterly. "What he's forming is a dictatorship."

Chief justice backs Chavez
Short of a drastic fall in global oil prices, there seems to be little 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 say Venezuela's democracy is healthier than ever.

Leslie Mazoch  /  AP
Children play as an oil pump works in the background in Maracaibo, Venezuela. The state-owned oil company coined the slogan "It's everyone's oil" during Hugo Chavez's government.
"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.

How much say the public will have 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."

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