Venezuela's Maduro issues emergency decrees amid growing opposition

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Caracas (AFP) - Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro declared a three-month state of emergency late Friday to face "threats from abroad," as his emboldened foes geared for a vote to oust him.

In an address to the nation, Maduro said he had signed a new state of emergency decree "to neutralize and defeat foreign aggression," which he says is closing in on the country.

Maduro said the measures will likely last through 2017, but he did not specify if they will limit civil rights.

The announcement, made with his full cabinet at his side, broadens the scope of an economic emergency decree in effect since January that was set to expire on Saturday.

The new decree, he said, is "a fuller, more comprehensive protection for our people," which "guarantees peace, guarantees stability, that will allow us ... to recover the country's productive capacity."

It will be extended "constitutionally" and last for the rest of the year "and likely throughout the year 2017," he said.

Maduro first issued a 60-day decree for emergency powers on January 14, which was extended in March, to deal with Venezuela's out of control economic crisis.

The economic decree authorized the president to take over private business assets in order to guarantee the supply of basic household products to the public.

Maduro's political opposition says this opens the door to new expropriations.

The president is widely blamed for a crisis in which Venezuelans are having to queue for hours for rations of basic food and other goods.

Maduro has also imposed daily electricity blackouts and has public employees working just two days a week due to power shortages.

In 2015 Venezuela's economy contracted 5.7 percent and its official inflation rate topped 180 percent -- one of the highest in the world. Non-government economists estimate the real inflation rate is several times higher.

- Blame Washington -

Maduro regularly blames US and local business interests for what his administration sees as a conspiracy against Venezuela amid low oil prices.

Washington has had a rocky relationship with the leftist government in Caracas for years, and the two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

Despite the acrimony the United States is Venezuela's main trading partner and the biggest customer for oil, the South American country's main export.

Caracas depends overwhelmingly on oil revenue, and has suffered mightily since the plunge in world oil prices.

Maduro, blamed for Venezuela's deep economic crisis, has a 68 percent disapproval rating according to pollsters Venebarometro.

Senior US intelligence officials believe that Venezuela's leftist government could be overthrown in a popular uprising this year, The Washington Post reported Saturday.

"You can hear the ice cracking," an intelligence official said. "You know there's a crisis coming."

The US officials spoke on condition of anonymity about Venezuela to a small group of reporters, including one from The Post.

US policymakers believe they can do little to influence quickly changing events in Venezuela, and their main concern is that the country does not collapse, the Post said.

US officials have been especially disappointed by the undisciplined, divided opposition to Maduro, the Post said.

- Demand for recall vote -

Two senior Venezuelan officials, lawmaker Diosdado Cabello and Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, expressed support for Maduro on Twitter.

Opposition lawmaker Tomas Guanipa meanwhile said the state of emergency is aimed at "destabilizing the country to prevent the recall vote."

Maduro announced the decree hours after Venezuelan opposition leaders met with Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States (OAS).

It would be "the worst act of political corruption," if a recall vote is not held this year, said Almagro, speaking at a forum in Miami.

Opposition leaders have until the end of 2016 to hold the recall vote if they want new presidential elections -- but according to the constitution, after January 2017 a successful recall would transfer power to Maduro's vice president rather than trigger new elections.

In early May the opposition delivered 1.8 million signatures petitioning for a vote to recall the president.

Under electoral rules, officials were supposed to have already authenticated the signatures and move to the next step towards holding a referendum.

The opposition accuses the government of controlling the elections board and seeking to delay the recall vote.

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