Venezuelan Assembly Grants President Maduro Emergency Powers
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It's called the anti-imperialist enabling law for peace, and it gives Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro the power to rule by decree for nine months. The law comes after the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Venezuelan officials. Opposition leaders fear that the law, passed over the weekend, will lead to an even broader crackdown on dissent. Kejal Vyas, of The Wall Street Journal, joins me now from Caracas. And, Kejal, President Maduro's party already controls the legislature. You do hear this train of thought that this emergency decree is really a pretext to mask bigger troubles that he's facing. What are those troubles?
KEJAL VYAS: Well, it's quite the laundry list of problems that the president's facing. The economy is the biggest concern here, according to polls. Venezuela has one of the highest inflation rates - if not the highest inflation rate - in the world. Officially, it's hovering around 65 percent or so, and there are some estimates that it'll hit triple digits this year. The currency - the value of the currency is in freefall. Prices go up at the grocery store just about almost every day. There's shortages of basic goods like milk, cornflower, car batteries, and it's an economy that's very centrally controlled. And so as the government's finances are affected by the drop of oil prices, you're noticing quite a big cut in terms of what the government can afford to import. And all those problems are responsible for the very sharp drop in President Maduro's popularity, which is now estimated to be in the 20s range - about 30 points off from when he started.
BLOCK: There was also a mass mobilization for military exercises over the weekend so that, as President Maduro put it, the imperial boot of United States does not touch us. Do Venezuelans really believe that the U.S. is about to attack - that aggressive stance that President Maduro has warned about?
VYAS: It's an idea that resonates quite strongly here in Venezuela. You know, Mr. Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, had a pretty successful 14-year political career constantly warning about U.S. invasion. And you hear oftentimes Venezuela is a very politically polarized country, but not necessarily is it that polarized in terms of its opinion of the U.S. Anti-U.S. sentiment is quite strong on both sides of the political spectrum, and you've seen that over the last week as the parliament was debating whether or not to give Mr. Maduro these expanded powers. You even notice many opposition leaders throwing in lines about, you know, how we have to oppose U.S. meddling and U.S. intervention. And so there is something to be said that that stance goes a long way.
BLOCK: And the new U.S. sanctions - do those feed into that sentiment there in Venezuela?
VYAS: Absolutely. The government here has constantly tried to display the U.S. sanctions as a tax on the whole country. Now, the sanctions are, in broader terms, pretty much a slap on the wrist. They go after specific Venezuelan officials who have been accused of rights abuses over the last year during a wave of protests against the government. They don't impose any kind of broader economic sanctions that would affect, you know, your everyday Venezuelan, but certainly the government portrays them as if they do.
BLOCK: That's Kejal Vyas - Venezuela correspondent with The Wall Street Journal. He spoke with us from Caracas. Kejal, thanks so much.
VYAS: Thank you.
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