CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans may be forced to spy on their neighbors or risk prison terms under President Hugo Chavez's new intelligence decree, raising fears of a Cuba-style system that could be used to stifle dissent.
Chavez says the intelligence law that he quietly decreed last week will help Venezuela detect and neutralize national security threats, including assassination or coup plots. But many Venezuelans are alarmed they could be forced to act as informers for the authorities — or face up to four years in prison.
"It's a system just like Cuba," said Raul Barbiera, an 80-year-old barber who was born in Spain and immigrated to Venezuela decades ago. He said the law reminds him of his experiences as a young man during the fascist dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, when "you couldn't speak against the government."
Chavez's leftist government maintains links to community activist groups and also has set up neighborhood-level "communal councils" that decide how to spend government funds for community projects.
The law says community-based organizations may be called upon to provide intelligence.
Critics suspect such groups could become like Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which often are a forum for neighbors to snoop on each other and report suspicious activities to authorities.