Venezuela emergency decree boosts security powers

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Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's army is to be backed by civilians grouped into ancillary security units, to tackle food shortages and public unrest, under a state of emergency decree published on Monday.

The decree, published in the government gazette, brings into effect for at least 60 days sweeping powers President Nicolas Maduro announced on Friday.

The measures give his government and security forces broad authorization to ignore most constitutional safeguards in a bid to keep order and supply basic food and services, and to counter a crippling energy shortage.

But the opposition, which controls the National Assembly and is seeking Maduro's ouster through a referendum, is to put the decree's public-control measures to the test on Wednesday with nationwide marches.

Police and soldiers used tear gas to break up similar protests last week.

The developments threaten to deepen the crisis in the oil-rich South American country, whose oil-dependent economy is tottering dangerously.

Hyperinflation, three years of recession, shrinking oil revenues, electricity rationing, and now rising political confrontation in the nation have sent alarm bells ringing across the Americas.

"The conditions for the Venezuelan population are terrible," said a spokesman for the White House in Washington, Josh Earnest.

He described recent reports of chaos as "breathtaking."

"Now is the time for leaders to listen to diverse Venezuelan voices and work together peacefully to truly find solutions."

- Military exercises -

The United States is picking its words carefully, aware that Maduro is holding it up as a principal agent of the mounting woes he is facing.

But two senior US intelligence officials last week warned that the odds of public revolt are rising.

Maduro has ordered military exercises for Saturday to prepare for what he calls the threat of an armed intervention backed by the United States at the behest of the "fascist Venezuelan right."

In his decree, Maduro put security to the fore, to fend off "destabilizing actions that mean to disrupt life inside the country or its international relations."

Soldiers are to help police keep order, backed by the local civilian committees, and are to be deployed to distribute and sell food.

Individuals, companies or non-governmental organizations in Venezuela with links to foreign entities are to be put under scrutiny and their finances frozen if deemed to be political or destabilizing.

The text also opens the way to expropriations of businesses not seen to be doing enough to supply staple foodstuffs, and other steps as needed as long as they don't violate constitutional protections on human rights.

The measures are to last for 60 days with the option of being renewed for further periods of 60 days.

- 'Authoritarian' -

The opposition says the state of emergency is an attempt to quash efforts to call a referendum on removing the unpopular president from office.

"This government is acting in an authoritarian manner to keep itself in power," opposition lawmaker Tomas Guanipa told a press conference.

Seven in 10 Venezuelans want a change in government, according to recent polls.

The discontent with 53-year-old Maduro, the hand-picked successor of the late Hugo Chavez, has gone hand-in-hand with the economic unraveling he has presided over since becoming leader in 2013.

Maduro has said the state of emergency could be renewed to extend through 2017.

The company seizures could notably affect the Polar group, Venezuela's biggest food and beverage company, which halted beer production on April 30, saying it had run out of barley.

Venezuelan businesses say they are currently operating at less than 45 percent capacity because the government will not allow them to buy increasingly scarce dollars to pay foreign suppliers.

The opposition won legislative elections in December, but its agenda in the National Assembly has been stymied by the Supreme Court, which it condemns as beholden to Maduro.

It is now seeking to organize a recall referendum, and says it has collected 1.8 million signatures to launch the process.

But the vote must be held by the end of the year to trigger new elections, and the opposition accuses the authorities of stalling.

After January 10 -- four years into Maduro's six-year term -- a successful recall vote would simply transfer power to his hand-picked vice president, Aristobulo Isturiz.

Isturiz said Sunday there would not even be a vote, alleging irregularities in collecting signatures.

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