President Nicolás Maduro sought special decree powers from Venezuela's parliament on Tuesday in response to new U.S. sanctions, drawing protests from the opposition of a power grab.
If, as expected, the government-controlled National Assembly approves Maduro’s request for an enabling law, it would be the second time the 52-year-old successor to Hugo Chávez has gained these expanded powers since winning election in 2013.
"I'm going to ask for an anti-imperialist enabling law ... to preserve the nation's peace, integrity and sovereignty," Maduro said in a speech late Monday night, without specifying further what decrees he might use it for.
Maduro, who compared U.S. President Barack Obama’s sanctions decision to “mistakes” made by former presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush while in office, said the enabling law would buttress state institutions against any Washington aggression.
“President Barack Obama, representing the U.S. imperialist elite, has decided to undergo the task of overthrowing my government and intervening in Venezuela in order to control it,” Maduro said.
Opposition leaders slammed Maduro, saying he was using the worst flare-up with Washington of his nearly two-year rule to justify autocratic governance, sidetrack parliament and distract attention from Venezuela's grave economic crisis.
"Nicolás, are you requesting the enabling law to make soap, nappies and medicines appear, to lower inflation?" opposition leader Henrique Capriles said, in a reference to the country’s recent shortages of essential goods. "It's another smokescreen."
Confirming Venezuela as Washington's No. 1 adversary in Latin America after a rapprochement with Cuba, the United States has taken its gloves off against Maduro, designating his government a security threat and sanctioning seven officials.
Obama's government declared a "national emergency" due to "the unusual and extraordinary threat" to U.S. interests.
A visa ban and financial block was slapped on seven Venezuelan officials — ranging from the head of national intelligence and a state prosecutor to the national police chief and various military officers — for their alleged role in repressing Maduro's domestic opponents or corruption.
The president brought the seven to his cabinet meeting late on Monday, declaring them "heroes" in a live address on national TV and naming one, General Gustavo González López, as new interior minister.
Despite improving ties with the United States, communist-run Cuba was quick to jump to Maduro's support and join Venezuelan officials' mockery of the U.S.
"Venezuela a threat to the United States? Thousands of miles away, without strategic arms and without using resources or officials to conspire against the U.S. constitutional order, the declaration is barely credible and reveals the real aims of those behind it," Cuba's government said.
Despite the diplomatic tensions, the United States is Venezuela's top trading partner and the OPEC member's crude sales even rose in February to 796,000 barrels per day.
The escalation in U.S.-Venezuelan tensions appears to have been triggered by Maduro's accusations that Washington was behind an alleged coup plot — allegations that Maduro critics say are used to deflect attention from Venezuela’s faltering economy and security woes.
Venezuela's National Assembly, which requires two votes to approve the Enabling Law once a formal request is received, was due to meet later on Tuesday. In the past, both Maduro and Chavez have received speedy approval of the Enabling Law.
Al Jazeera and Reuters