CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro responded to new U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan officials by asking legislators Tuesday to give him expanded powers in the name of fighting imperialism. Government critics called it a power grab.
During a speech to the National Assembly, Maduro lashed out at Washington for imposing sanctions this week on a handful of top Venezuelan officials accused of human rights violations.
The socialist president, who has seen his popularity slide amid the country's economic troubles, said he would use a new "anti-imperialize law" to ensure Venezuela is never caught off guard by the threats posed by the U.S. government.
"We'll be able to prepare ourselves economically, financially and commercially for whatever kind of blockade the U.S. surely has planned," he said.
Maduro didn't specify the powers that the law would grant him or say exactly how he would apply them.
He also announced that the military would stage exercises around Venezuela on Saturday to ensure that the "Yankee boot" can never touch the South American oil country.
Opponents said Maduro will surely use any additional powers to quash dissent. Several opposition leaders said they worried the expanded powers would 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. "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 Venezuela'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.
Over the 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 officials sanctioned Monday were on that list.
Venezuela's allies rejected the sanctions Tuesday, with Cuba calling them "barely credible," and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa describing them as a "a bad joke." Bolivian President Evo Morales suggested South American leaders hold an emergency meeting to address the U.S. move.
Hours after Monday's announcement from the U.S., Maduro delivered a fiery speech flanked by the sanctioned officials, promoting one and congratulating each for the "imperial honor" bestowed by Washington.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Tuesday denied that the U.S. was working to destabilize Maduro's government and noted that the U.S. is Venezuela's largest trading partner. Asked about Maduro's request for additional powers, she said he "needs to spend more time listening to the views of the Venezuelan people."
Decree powers were a favorite tool of Maduro's mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez, who used them to reshape Venezuela's economy and social safety net. Maduro was granted special powers shortly after taking office in 2013. He issued dozens of decrees that increased state control of the economy, but stayed away from major overhauls.
Relations with the U.S. have worsened as Venezuela has struggled in recent years with rising violent crime and a slumping economy that has made it difficult to keep shelves stocked with basic goods.
Venezuela last week gave the U.S. two weeks to greatly reduce 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 nearly all of the country's ills at one time or another.
Analysts say the U.S. sanctions could be a gift to Maduro in the short term, providing him with an excuse to dwell on his conflict with Washington.
Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier