By IAN JAMES
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sunday said he was signing his first decree under new powers granted to him by congress to create a fund for housing reconstruction after devastating floods and landslides.
The National Assembly earlier this month granted Chavez broad powers to enact laws by decree for a year and a half. Opponents have condemned that and a package of other laws approved by Chavez's congressional allies, saying the measures are a power grab by the president and will enable him to crack down on dissent.
"Here it is, the first of the laws... that I'm going to sign," Chavez said Sunday during a televised speech.
He said it's one of multiple decrees in the works "to tend to the emergency" and that the government fund will initially have 10 billion bolivars ($2.3 billion) to pay for rebuilding areas devastated by torrential rains. Chavez said more than 130,000 Venezuelans have gone to government shelters due to the disaster.
"That's what the enabling law is especially for. Where do some insane people get that it's for installing a dictatorship in Venezuela?" Chavez said at the event in western Zulia state, accompanied by Bolivian President Evo Morales.
Since Dec. 17, Chavez has used an outgoing National Assembly packed with loyalists to gain new abilities to crack down on some types of messages on the Internet, increase government control of universities that are bastions of dissent, and block foreign funding to human rights groups, among other changes.
Opposition politicians have denounced the maneuvers as a virtual "coup" before a new legislature takes office Jan. 5 with enough opposition lawmakers to prevent passage of some types of major laws.
"They say I'm carrying out a coup. It's the excuse for the one they'd like to carry out," Chavez said. "There will be no coup here, neither by Chavez nor against Chavez. There will be democracy, democracy and more democracy here. Only that it's the new democracy."
Chavez, who was first elected in 1998, has long thrived on confrontation with his adversaries while vowing to lead the country toward a socialist system. Opponents have denounced the latest laws as the "Cuban package," referring to Chavez's close relationship with Fidel Castro.
Among the controversial laws pushed through this month by his allies in the National Assembly are one that allows suspension of any lawmakers who leave a party mid-term and another that is expected to speed up the process if Chavez decides to nationalize more banks.
Lawmakers barred foreign funding for any nongovernment organizations that defend "political rights," a change that critics say will hobble some human rights groups.
The National Assembly also passed a law making it easier for the government to revoke TV or radio licenses, and another extending broadcast-type regulations to the Internet -- barring messages that "disrespect public authorities," "incite or promote hatred" or crimes, or that could create "anxiety in the citizenry or alter public order."
While lawmakers have held late-night sessions, Chavez's government has also seized a list of ranches in western Venezuela as part of a nationwide effort to take over large swaths of farmland -- drawing strong criticism from business leaders who say the ranches are highly productive.
Noel Alvarez, president of the country's largest business chamber Fedecamaras, last week objected to the new laws and farm seizures, urging Venezuelans to "defend the constitution and democracy."
Alvarez also publicly urged the military to exercise "freedom of conscience" and stand by the constitution. That remark led prosecutors to announce an investigation against him, saying Alvarez had urged the armed forces to "disobey orders."