Today, Venezuela’s Congress voted to once again delegate decree powers to President Nicolás Maduro. After a two-hour debate and a vote by a show of hands, Congress awarded Maduro special powers to unilaterally legislate in the areas of defense and public spending, a prerogative that Maduro can enjoy until at least December.
The decision by the government controlled Congress to delegate decree power once again to the president was initiated amidst an acrimonious and damaging spat with the United States. Last Monday, the Obama administration leveled sanctions against seven prominent members of the Venezuelan government. In addition, President Obama issued an executive order, which characterized Venezuela as a security threat. Obama launched this offensive due to what the US has called repeated ‘human rights abuses’ and has ordered Venezuela to release all political prisoners, including the high profile opposition leader, Leopoldo López.
This aggression has backfired somewhat on the Obama administration. Leaders across Latin America have condemned US actions and have accused the US of interfering in Latin American sovereignty. Given the checkered history of the US in the region, this is a bad time to be evoking echoes of the Cold War amidst a thawing of relations with Cuba. And in Venezuela, Congress delegated these powers to the president in response to the ‘threat from the United States.’
This is the second time since Maduro has come to office that Congress has delegated such decree power to him. In October 2013, the president asked the National Assembly to pass the “Enabling Law,” a piece of legislation that granted him decree power for 12 months in order to deal with corruption and ‘economic sabotage.’ This gave President Maduro the ability to fast track certain pieces of legislation and to pass others without congressional approval.
Of course, this is not the first time that a Venezuelan President, nor indeed a Latin American president, has requested such ‘delegated powers’ from the legislature. Hugo Chávez was granted the power to rule by decree a total of four times, and used this power to enact nearly 200 legal changes, which allowed him to increase the presence of the state in the national economy. In Argentina in 1989, Carlos Menem was also delegated authority by the legislature to rule by decree in order to address the crippling hyperinflation that was plaguing the economy. Likewise, also in Argentina, Néstor Kirchner was delegated similar authority. This lack of legislative oversight, or horizontal accountability, became so widespread that the famous Argentine political scientist, Guillermo O’Donnell (1936-2011), characterized these weakly institutionalized Latin American democracies as ‘delegative democracies.’
It is this use of unilateral decree power with which Latin American presidents have ridden roughshod over national legislatures, which is often associated with the Linzian interpretation of the perils of the presidentialism. In Venezuela of course, these powers are not indicative of a hostile house (or at least not the larger part of it) – rather a subservient one. The actions of the US have only served to reinforce this relationship.
 O’Donnell, Guillermo. 1994. “Delegative Democracy,” Journal of Democracy, 5(1), pp. 55-69. Although in recent years, the analytical utility of this concept has been called into question.
 See Cox, Gary and Scott Morgenstern. 2001. “Latin America’s Reactive Assemblies and Proactive Presidents.” Comparative Politics, 33(2), 171-189.