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Thursday, April 8, 1999 Published at 23:38 GMT 00:38 UK

World: Americas

Venezuela threatened with emergency

Supporters of President Chavez lobby Congress

By Central American Correspondent Peter Greste

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has threatened to declare a state of emergency if Congress refuses to grant him sweeping new powers to deal with the economy.

Mr Chavez wants the parliament to pass what is known as an enabling law that will allow him to rule by decree on economic issues.

His critics have accused him of behaving like a dictator.

When Hugo Chavez assumed the Venezuelan presidency last February, he said the country's economy was facing an emergency.

Now he has warned the national congress that unless it grants him the powers he wants, he will declare that emergency.

The heart of the problem is an economic crisis caused by the collapse in world oil prices. Venezuela is the world's largest oil exporter outside the Middle East, and its prosperity depends almost entirely on the commodity.

When he became president, Hugo Chavez inherited a budget deficit estimated at $8bn, widespread bankruptcies and booming unemployment.

'No alternative'

The only solution, he said, is the power to rule the economy by decree.

Last week, Congress offered him some of what he wanted - powers to decide on issues from tax collection to deficit reduction for six months. But the president rejected it as not going far enough.

If he does declare a state of emergency, Hugo Chavez will have the power to suspend constitutional guarantees and rule the nation by decree.

His critics say that would put him right where he's always wanted to be, at the head of a Latin American dictatorship, and complete the grab for total power that he began when he led an attempted military coup in 1992.

Hugo Chavez is still hugely popular amongst the poorest Venezuelans who make up the vast majority of the population.

But some observers, particularly amongst the business community, fear a return to old-fashioned authoritarianism.

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