CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelans might be forced to spy on their neighbors or risk prison terms under President Hugo Chavez's new intelligence decree, raising fears of a Cuban-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 informants for the authorities - or face up to four years in prison.
"It's a system just like Cuba," said Raul Barbiera, 80, a barber who was born in Spain and immigrated to Venezuela decades ago. He said the law reminded him of his experiences as a young man during the fascist dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, when "you couldn't speak against the government."
Barbiera said people would watch what they say because "anyone can start a file on you."
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 one another and report suspicious activities to authorities.
Nancy Silva, 45, a shopkeeper, said she worried about the creation of neighborhood-level spying networks.
"The government wants citizens to spy on each other," Silva said. "That's scary."
Justice Minister Rodriguez Chacin denied Venezuela was copying Cuba's intelligence services, saying, "This is a Venezuelan product." He said on Monday that all Venezuelans had an obligation to cooperate.
But constitutional-law attorney Alberto Arteaga Sanchez noted that Chavez "is constantly calling opposition leaders coup-plotters and pro-imperialists."