Venezuela’s congress on Thursday approved President Nicolas Maduro’s request for expanded powers, allowing him to effectively rule by decree. Maduro had requested the powers to combat U.S. “imperialism,” after the country was classified as a national security threat by the Obama administration.

The so-called “Enabling Law” would allow Maduro to enact laws for up to six months without congressional approval, and is expected to be formally approved on Sunday, Al Jazeera reported. Maduro said he would use the powers to ensure Venezuela’s "protection against meddling by other states in the internal affairs of the republic, militaristic actions or any external or internal activity that aims to break the peace.”

Maduro’s call for power was denounced by opposition groups, saying he was using the diplomatic dispute as a cover to shore up support for autocratic rule and distract the country from its flagging economy. 

Nicolas, are you requesting the Enabling Law to make soap, nappies and medicines appear, to lower inflation?” asked opposition leader Henrique Capriles, referring to growing shortages of essential goods in the country, according to Reuters. "It's another smokescreen," he added.

On Monday, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to counter what he called an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” adding that it constituted a “national emergency.” The order declared a series of sanctions and travel bans targeting seven individuals in Venezuela’s government and defense sectors, and forbade U.S. entities from doing business with them.

The move was widely denounced by other Latin American countries. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States issued a statement criticizing Washington’s “unilateral coercive measures against International Law.”

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa called the move a “gross, illegal, shameless, outrageous, and unjustified act of interference,” and called for a summit of the Union of South American Nations to discuss a response to the sanctions. The head of the regional grouping also expressed his support for Venezuela in the matter.

The U.S. government had earlier called on Venezuela to release all political prisoners it held, including students, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas, accusing the government of cracking down on political dissent. Venezuela has accused Ledezma of being involved in an alleged coup attempt.

The U.S. had previously backed a 2002 coup against Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, where it “provided training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government,” according to the U.S. State Department. However, Washington has repeatedly denied allegations that it is again seeking a regime change in the country.


Maduro said on Thursday that he may travel to the U.S. to challenge the sanctions directly and demand evidence of the alleged threat posed by Venezuela to U.S. national security, according to Reuters.

"We demand, via all global diplomatic channels, that President Obama rectify and repeal the immoral decree declaring Venezuela a threat to the United States," Maduro said.