Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Sunday was given the right to rule by decree for nine months, as he continued to capitalize on the backlash created by recent U.S. sanctions.
In a raucous session full of chanting and blistering speeches, the National Assembly, which is controlled by the ruling party, passed the “Anti-Imperialist Enabling Law for Peace.”
The law, which gives Maduro the ability to bypass congress in issuing security and defense legislation through December, is expected to go into effect Monday when it’s published in the official gazette.
As thousands of supporters waved Venezuelan flags and signs that read “Yankee Go Home,” Maduro thanked congress for its support and said he was launching an international campaign to have the U.S. sanctions repealed
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“This is a great victory for our country and our sovereignty,” he said. “It will give me the power I need to preserve the peace.”
Maduro didn’t say how he will use his new powers, but the opposition worries that the socialist administration will continue to crack down on dissent in the run-up to legislative elections.
Sunday capped a week of political jiu-jitsu, during which Maduro has managed to portray the U.S. sanctions against seven officials as a major threat to the South American nation.
In particular, Venezuela and other regional governments have been alarmed by the language in President Barack Obama’s March 9 executive order. The document declared a “national emergency” — a prerequisite to enacting sanctions — and called Venezuela a threat to U.S. national and foreign interests.
On Saturday, the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, demanded that Washington retract the executive order because it represented a “threat” to sovereignty and to the “principal of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states.”
Bolivian President Evo Morales, a Caracas ally, said Washington needed to apologize for the affront or face a backlash during the Summit of the Americas, which will be held next month in Panama.
Building on that idea, Maduro on Sunday said the leaders of the nine-member ALBA group of nations, which includes Cuba and Nicaragua, will be meeting in Caracas on Tuesday to form a common front against the U.S. at the summit.
Venezuela has been mired in chaos as sinking crude prices and economic mismanagement have restricted access to the foreign currency needed to finance imports. As a result, basic items are often hard to come by and inflation is among the highest in the world.
Earlier this month, the government began installing fingerprint scanners at state-run stores to try to crack down on hoarding. And last year, Maduro was given decree powers for six months to deal with the economy.
Also on Sunday, Venezuela continued military drills that the government says are in preparation for any acts of foreign aggression. Maduro, who has often accused Washington of being behind destabilization and coup plots, said the mass mobilization was necessary to guarantee that the “imperial boot of the United States does not touch us.”
Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino also told the crowds that the U.S. sanctions could be a precursor to an invasion.
Henrique Capriles, a former opposition presidential candidate and the governor of Miranda, said the real war was with the government’s domestic policies.
“Don’t believe the stories and the bad novels, there’s not going to be an invasion here,” he said in a statement Saturday when the military drills were inaugurated. “They’re trying to distract the people from the grave economic crisis that we’re going through.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman from Miami and one of the principal backers of the sanctions against Venezuela, called Sunday’s decree another setback for the country’s democracy.
“By making another power grab through decree, Maduro is attempting to distract away from the reality that it is his own disastrous policies that have caused Venezuela’s economy to spiral out of control,” she said in a statement in anticipation of Sunday’s vote. “The truth is the sanctions imposed by the U.S. did not impact the people of Venezuela nor the economy, but rather targeted specific human rights violators within the regime — but these thugs never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”
Despite Sunday’s heated rhetoric, Maduro said there is always room for reconciliation.
He said the embassy’s Chargé d’affaires Maximilien Sánchez would return to Washington on Monday to begin meeting with U.S. officials. And he repeated his offer to sit down with Obama to iron out differences.
“With the government of the United States,” he said, “we are always open to dialogue.”
Miami Herald South America Correspondent Jim Wyss is based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow him on Twitter: @jimwyss