Venezuela president seeks increased power after US sanctions

Author: Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro is responding to new U.S. sanctions by seeking expanded powers in the name of fighting imperialism, sparking alarm among critics of his socialist administration.

Maduro lashed out at the U.S. for imposing sanctions Monday on top Venezuelan officials accused of human rights violations. The socialist leader delivered a fiery speech flanked by the sanctioned officials, promoting one and congratulating each for the “imperial honor” bestowed by Washington.

“President Barack Obama, in the name of the U.S. imperialist elite, has decided to personally take on the task of defeating my government, intervening in Venezuela, and controlling it from the U.S.,” Maduro said late Monday night. “Obama today took the most aggressive, unjust and poisonous step that the U.S. has ever taken against Venezuela.”

Maduro announced he would ask the ruling-party controlled Congress to grant him new powers to defend the country against threats to its sovereignty. He didn’t specify the powers or say how he’d apply them. Lawmakers were expected to take up the measure Tuesday.

Opponents blasted the plan, saying it would be used quash dissent. Opposition leaders also raised concerns that expanded powers could allow Maduro to override the results of legislative elections expected late this year.

“You wonder why the administration even needs enabling laws, given that they control the National Assembly,” opposition leader Maria Corina Machado told journalists Tuesday. “This just shows that they do what they want with public institutions, and the National Assembly is just window dressing for a regime that is a dictatorship.”

The U.S. is targeting officials in the top echelon of the South American country’s security apparatus responsible for cracking down on last year’s anti-government protests, and for pursuing charges against opponents. The officials will be denied U.S. visas and have their U.S. assets frozen.

Venezuela’s allies rejected the sanctions, with Cuba terming them “arbitrary and aggressive” and Ecuador President Rafael Correa calling them “a bad joke.”

Bolivia President Evo Morales suggested South American leaders hold an emergency meeting to address the U.S. move.

The European Union announced Tuesday it would not impose sanctions on Venezuela, though its leaders remain concerned about the country’s growing polarization.

Maduro promoted one targeted individual, Major Gen. Gustavo Gonzalez, director general of Venezuela’s intelligence service, to Interior Minister. The U.S. says he was complicit in violent acts against protesters.

Decree powers were a favorite tool of Maduro’s mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez, who used them to promulgate dozens of laws that dramatically boosted state control over the economy. Maduro was granted special powers shortly after taking office in 2013 to overhaul the economy, but he stayed away from major reforms.

The U.S. maintains strong economic ties with Venezuela’s energy sector, but diplomatic tensions have risen in recent months between countries that have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

Last summer, the State Department imposed a travel ban on Venezuelan officials accused of abuses during the protests, but didn’t name them publicly. It’s unclear if any of the seven sanctioned Monday were on that list.

Venezuela last week gave the U.S. two weeks to slash the staff at its diplomatic mission in Caracas from about 100 to 17, and imposed its own travel ban on a list of conservative U.S leaders.

Maduro denounces the “Yankee empire” almost nightly on national television. As his approval ratings have plunged to the 20 percent range, he has blamed U.S. interference for ills including chronic shortages and skyrocketing inflation.

Over the short term, the sanctions will likely give credence to Maduro’s claims the U.S. is conspiring to destabilize his rule, said Rocio San Miguel, who leads a Caracas organization focused on national security issues.

But San Miguel expects that the legal offensive will have a chilling effect over time on top officials, even if they don’t hold American assets or travel to the U.S. She cited the case of a top Venezuelan official who was nearly extradited to the U.S. last year from Aruba.

“There’s a real fear how this sort of action can trespass borders,” she said.

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