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CARACAS, Venezuela – President Nicolas Maduro lashed out at the U.S. for imposing sanctions on top Venezuelan officials accused of human rights violations, saying he would ask his country's Congress to grant him additional powers to "fight imperialism."
In a fiery speech broadcast on state television Monday night, the socialist leader appeared alongside the sanctioned officials, promoting one and congratulating each for the "imperial honor" bestowed by Washington.
"President Barack Obama, in the name of the U.S. imperialist elite, has decided to personally take on the task of defeating my government, intervening in Venezuela, and controlling it from the U.S.," Maduro said. "Obama today took the most aggressive, unjust and poisonous step that the U.S. has ever taken against Venezuela."
The U.S. is targeting a handful of officials in the top echelon of the South American country's security apparatus that was responsible for cracking down on anti-government protests that rocked Venezuela last year and for pursuing charges against opposition figures. The sanctioned officials will be denied visas and have their U.S. assets frozen.
One of targeted individuals, Major Gen. Gustavo Gonzalez, director general of Venezuela's intelligence service, was promoted to Interior Minister, a key post responsible for keeping the peace. The U.S. says he was complicit in acts of violence against protesters.
Maduro also announced that he would ask the ruling-party controlled Congress to grant him new powers so that he could defend the country against all aggressions and threats to its sovereignty. But he didn't specify the powers or how he'd apply them.
Opponents immediately blasted the plan, saying it would be used quash dissent.
Decree powers were a favorite tool of Maduro's mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez, who used them to promulgate dozens of laws that dramatically boosted state control over the economy. Maduro was granted special powers shortly after taking office in 2013, in the service of overhauling the economy, but stayed away from major reforms.
The U.S. maintains deep economic ties with Venezuela, particularly its energy sector, but diplomatic tensions have been on the rise in recent months. Monday's events sunk relations between the countries to new lows.
Last summer, the State Department imposed a travel ban on Venezuelan officials accused of abuses the protests, but stopped short of naming them publicly. Last week, Venezuela gave the U.S. two weeks to slash its diplomatic mission there to less than 20 percent of its current size, and imposed a travel ban on a list of conservative U.S leaders.
Several of the politicians singled out by Maduro said they took the ban as a badge of honor, echoing Maduro's own language Monday night.
In announcing the new sanctions, U.S. officials emphasized that they did not target the Venezuelan people or its economy, and reiterated the position that Maduro's talk of U.S. meddling is a red herring. Venezuela immediately recalled its top diplomat in Washington to Caracas for consultations. The two nations haven't exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
While he took an unusually furious tone Monday, Maduro denounces the "Yankee empire" almost nightly on national television. As his approval ratings have plunged to the low 20 percent range, he has blamed U.S. interference for many of Venezuela's ills, including chronic shortages and skyrocketing inflation.
In the short term, the sanctions will likely give life to Maduro's claims the U.S. is conspiring to destabilize his rule, said Rocio San Miguel, who leads a Caracas-based organization focused on national security issues.
But over time, San Miguel expects the legal offensive will have a chilling effect on top officials, who may feel restricted in their movements even though they don't hold assets or travel to the U.S. She cited the case of one top Venezuelan official who was nearly extradited to the U.S. last year from Aruba.
"There's a real fear how this sort of action can trespass borders," she said.
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