Venezuela's Maduro given decree powers for rest of 2015

A member of Venezuela's militia wears a portrait of late President Hugo Chavez on his head during a rally outside Miraflores Palace in Caracas March 15, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By Deisy Buitrago and Andrew Cawthorne CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's parliament granted President Nicolas Maduro decree powers on Sunday for the rest of 2015 in a move he says is to defend the country from U.S. meddling but opponents decry as evidence of autocracy. In a noisy National Assembly session, ruling Socialist Party legislators, who have a majority, applauded the "Enabling Law" as a legitimate response to a U.S. declaration that Venezuela is a security threat and sanctions on seven officials. "They (the United States) want to stick their hands into Venezuela's wealth, just as they have done in other countries," ruling party legislator Tania Diaz said, presenting the "anti-imperialist" Enabling Law to parliament. Outside, red-clad Maduro supporters chanted and held placards proclaiming: "Yankees go home." In their speeches, angry opposition lawmakers said Maduro was cynically exploiting the diplomatic flare-up with Washington to amass powers, justify repression and distract Venezuelans from economic problems including acute shortages. "Corrupt ones, your trips to Disney World are over," tweeted opposition leader Henrique Capriles, referring to the U.S. visa ban on seven Venezuelan officials whom Washington accuses of corruption and human rights abuses. "The Venezuelan people are not stupid. This (U.S. measure) is against you, not against Venezuela." The U.S. move has triggered daily denunciations from Maduro, a series of "anti-imperialist" rallies, military exercises, and a proliferation of graffiti condemning "gringo" interference. It has also overshadowed Venezuelans' disquiet at suffering the highest inflation in the Americas, long queues for food and medicines, and shortages of many basic products. Maduro, a 52-year-old former union activist and foreign minister who won election to replace Hugo Chavez in 2013, had seen his ratings dive on the economic crisis but pollsters believe he may get a nationalist bounce during the U.S. spat. Both the government and the opposition coalition are preparing for a vote later in the year to elect a new National Assembly. The date has not yet been set. Mindful of past U.S. meddling in their region, Latin American neighbors have been supportive of Maduro, with the South American UNASUR bloc condemning Washington's "interventionist threat" in a foreign ministers' statement. Sunday's measure was the second time Maduro has been empowered by an Enabling Law during his two-year rule. (Editing by Sandra Maler)