Caracas, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez was granted free rein Wednesday to accelerate changes in broad areas of society by presidential decree - a move critics said propels Venezuela toward dictatorship.
Convening in a downtown plaza in a session that resembled a political rally, lawmakers unanimously gave Chavez sweeping powers to legislate by decree and impose his radical vision of a more egalitarian socialist state.
"Long live the sovereign people! Long live President Hugo Chavez! Long live socialism!" said National Assembly President Cilia Flores as she proclaimed the "enabling law" approved by a show of hands. "Fatherland, socialism or death! We will prevail!"
The law gives Chavez, who is beginning a fresh six-year term, more power than he has ever had in eight years as president, and he plans to use it over the next 18 months to transform broad areas of public life, from the economy and the oil industry in particular, to "social matters" and the very structure of the state.
His critics call it a radical lurch toward authoritarianism by a leader with unchecked power - similar to how Fidel Castro monopolized leadership in Cuba.
"If you have all the power, why do you need more power?" said Luis Gonzalez, a high school teacher who paused to watch in the plaza, calling it a "media show" intended to give legitimacy to a repugnant move. "We're headed toward a dictatorship, disguised as a democracy."
Hundreds of Chavez supporters wearing ruling party red gathered in the plaza, waving signs reading "Socialism is democracy," as lawmakers read out passages of the law giving the president special powers to transform 11 areas of Venezuelan law.
"The people of Venezuela, not just the National Assembly, are giving this enabling power to the president of the republic," congresswoman Iris Varela told the crowd.
After the vote, Chavez remained out of public view Wednesday but announced plans for a news conference today at the presidential palace.
Chavez, a former paratroop commander re-elected with 63 percent of the vote in December, has said he will decree nationalizations of Venezuela's largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector, slap new taxes on the rich, and impose greater state control over the oil and natural gas industries.
The law also allows Chavez to dictate unspecified measures to transform state institutions; reform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations; decide on security and defense matters such as gun regulations and military organization; and "adapt" legislation to ensure "the equal distribution of wealth" as part of a new "social and economic model."
Chavez plans to reorganize regional territories and carry out reforms aimed at bringing "power to the people" through thousands of newly formed communal councils designed to give Venezuelans a say on spending an increasing flow of state money on projects in their neighborhoods, from public housing to potholes.
Historian Ines Quintero said that with the new powers, Chavez will achieve a level of "hegemony" that is unprecedented in the nation's nearly five decades of democratic history.