US sanctions Venezuela’s Maduro over constitutional threat

US sanctions Venezuela’s Maduro over constitutional threat

Critics say new assembly will consolidate authoritarian leader’s grip on power

The US on Monday imposed sanctions against Nicolás Maduro, a day after the Venezuelan president staged what world leaders condemned as a fraudulent vote to create an authoritarian “constituent assembly”.

The US Treasury said all Mr Maduro’s assets subject to US jurisdiction were frozen, and that Americans were prohibited from dealing with him.

“Yesterday’s illegitimate elections confirm that Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people,” said Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, in a statement.

US national security adviser HR McMaster told reporters Mr Maduro had joined an “exclusive club” of dictators who oppress their own people, citing Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and describing Sunday’s vote as a “farce”.

The government in Caracas said 8.1m people participated in Sunday’s election for an assembly which will have the power to shut down Congress, re-write the constitution, draft new laws and scrap all future elections in Venezuela, including a presidential ballot scheduled for next year.

The opposition said the figure was farcical and that only about 2m of Venezuela’s 19.5m eligible voters turned up. Other estimates put the turnout at between 2m-4m.

World leaders have rushed to condemn Mr Maduro and are refusing to recognise his assembly.

“By sanctioning Maduro, the United States makes clear our opposition to the policies of his regime and our support for the people of Venezuela who seek to return their country to a full and prosperous democracy,” said Mr Mnuchin.

The US urged those elected to the constituent assembly, which the US refers to as “illegitimate”, to refuse office and threatened further sanctions, raising the possibility that the US might manage to derail the assembly before it convenes. It was not clear whom the US recognises as the legitimate authority in Venezuela, however.

Boris Johnson, British foreign secretary, described Sunday’s election as “dubious” and said: “Venezuela stands on the brink of disaster.”

The EU condemned the vote and the accompanying violence, in which at least 10 people were killed.

“We will not recognise this election,” said Antonio Tajani, European Parliament president. “It is very clear that the current regime is clinging to power. The will of the people is to change the regime. It is necessary to go to elections now.”

In a rare show of Latin American unity, the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru all condemned the vote.

As the results were announced on Sunday, Mr Maduro’s supporters descended on central Caracas to celebrate, dancing well into the night and chanting revolutionary slogans. Shortly after midnight Mr Maduro addressed the crowd and welcomed “a new day” and “a beautiful dawn” for the country.

But at first light, as a soft drizzle fell over the city, the capital counted the cost of days of clashes and strikes. Many of the city’s streets were strewn with bags of rubbish, breeze blocks, branches and other debris, set up by the president’s opponents in a bid to bring Caracas to a halt. Opposition leaders urged people to return to the barricades on Monday.

Mr Maduro’s assembly is now just days away from becoming a reality. The government says it will be convened within 72 hours.

Venezuela’s combative attorney-general Luisa Ortega, who has been a constant thorn in Mr Maduro’s side during four months of street protests against his rule, looks certain to lose her job within days.

The future of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s democratically elected Congress, is in doubt. In theory it could be dissolved by the end of this week, although the government has suggested it might survive a little longer.

And across Venezuela, opposition leaders will be anxiously looking over their shoulders, waiting for a visit from the country’s intelligence service, the SEBIN.

Some opposition mayors and magistrates have already been arrested over the past week and at least one has sought refuge in a foreign embassy in Caracas. The Supreme Court has ordered more detentions in the days to come.

“I don’t think it’ll be Kristallnacht — they won’t round them all up in one night, because they know they are in the international eye,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “But I do think we will now see a pretty sustained persecution of opposition figures.”

The will of the people is to change the regime. It is necessary to go to elections now

ANTONIO TAJANI, PRESIDENT OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

The government has not said where the assembly will sit but it appears likely to move into the Congress building.

Mr Maduro describes the current Congress as “bourgeois” and accuses it of economic sabotage. He frequently suggests it is surplus to requirements, although his powerful PSUV vice-president Diosdado Cabello hinted on Sunday the two assemblies might coexist.

While US President Donald Trump has taken action in sanctioning Mr Maduro, there is still the “the nuclear option” — a total ban on imports of oil from Venezuela to the US, which would have a devastating effect on the South American nation but would also hurt US refineries. Washington could also institute more limited oil sanctions.

“You could implement a full ban on oil,” said Jason Marczak, Latin American policy specialist at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “But alternatively you could ban [Venezuelan state oil company] PDVSA from certain tenders, you could prevent it acquiring long-term dollar loans or buying US holdings, or you could go for a partial ban on oil imports rather than a full ban.

“The critical thing is that any action by the United States is co-ordinated with other governments in the region.”

The South American trade bloc Mercosur might be tempted to tighten the screws on Mr Maduro. Venezuela is a member of the bloc but is suspended and some critics say it should be kicked out altogether.

Ms Ortega is likely to become an early victim of the constituent assembly. She will almost certainly be replaced by Katherine Harrington, a Maduro loyalist who has been subject to US sanctions since 2015. Ms Harrington has had her assets in the US frozen and is barred from entering the country.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s opposition will have to decide where it goes from here. After four months of street protests in which more than 120 people have been killed and thousands injured and arrested, it has vowed to keep on fighting for a full restoration of democracy.

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