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US-Venezuela relations sour in new spat

Venezuela’s National Assembly grants President Nicolás Maduro decree powers for rest of 2015

Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have soured once again. This week ties between the two countries will be discussed during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill.

On Sunday the National Assembly gave Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro the power to legislate by decree for the rest of 2015. He requested the expanded powers to counter what he sees as threats from the U.S. government.

U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order last week saying the Latin American nation poses an “extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States. He imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan military and intelligence officials, accusing them of human rights violations, and extended the sanctions to members of their families. The individuals are barred from doing business with American citizens, traveling to the United States and could have their assets in the U.S. seized.

Foreign ministers of the 12-nation Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) have stood behind Caracas, calling Obama’s executive order a threat to Venezuelan sovereignty, and they’re demanding that Washington revoke the decree. Cuba’s government has added that the sanctions are “arbitrary and aggressive.”

Maduro responded to Obama’s move by telling the U.S. to reduce the size of its embassy, and also putting in place new visa requirements for Americans. He also appointed one of the blacklisted officials to be his minister of interior, shoring up support at home by saying his nation will “never kneel before this arrogant empire.”

During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Thomas Drayton spoke to Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and to Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, who joined the discussion from Washington, D.C.

Sabatini said it’s unclear why Maduro would need the special powers given to him. “He already had a strong majority in the national assembly,” he said. “He’s trying to drum up expectation and fear to consolidate power.”

Farnsworth said there’s also no immediate threat to the U.S. from Venezuela. “This is standard language that’s required in order to move forward to sanction foreign government officials,” he said. “It’s allowed Maduro and his government to dramatically overreact for their own purposes.” Farnsworth said Maduro is trying to gain support because he faces parliamentary elections later this year and currently has a low approval rating.

Venezuela began a 10-day military drill on Saturday, in which nearly 100,000 armed forces participated. They used shoulder-fired missiles, fighter planes and armored trucks. Sailors performed drills in the Caribbean and soldiers defended the country’s largest oil refinery in a simulated attack.

Venezuela is one of the top five exporters of oil to the United States. Its oil revenues account for about 95 percent of the country’s export earnings. In December, Maduro said Washington was starting an oil war, accusing it of trying to flood the market with shale oil to destroy Russia’s and Venezuela’s economies.

Opposition groups to Maduro’s government continued to protest, even after their top leaders were jailed. They’re upset over a deteriorating economy that has led to massive food shortages.

Farnsworth said that “when President [Hugo] Chávez was president, because he was the founder of the revolution, he had the flexibility to make changes where they needed to be. President Maduro doesn’t have that flexibility because his mandate comes from being the successor of Chávez.”

Maduro and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden shook hands a month ago, expressing interest in better relations during a meeting in Brazil. Since then, Maduro had accused Biden of plotting to overthrow him. He has also accused the U.S. of plans to impose a blockade on his country.

The seventh Summit of the Americas will be held next month in Panama. “This is probably going to be one of the most interesting summits ever,” said Sabatini. “You’ll have Obama and Maduro meeting face to face, and you’ll have some of the courting elements, if you will, of the Cuban regime,” a reference to recent talks and warming of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Farnsworth said, “I think the United States was hoping that this summit would be an opportunity to talk about the change in the Cuba relationship and to restore economic growth across the region. But the overheated rhetoric coming out of Venezuela — as well as the support that the Venezuelans are getting from other countries — has changed that dynamic politically.”

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