Demetri Sevastopulo | Financial Times
The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on 13 current and former officials in Venezuela, as Washington steps up pressure on president Nicolás Maduro to abandon a move aimed at tightening his grip on power.
Mr Maduro has vowed to press ahead with the creation of a Constituent Assembly on July 30 that would rewrite the constitution. Critics say it would propel Venezuela further down the path from democracy to dictatorship. Mr Trump last week warned that he would impose “strong and swift” economic sanctions if Mr Maduro proceeded.
Announcing the sanctions on Wednesday, Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, said the US would “not ignore the Maduro regime’s ongoing efforts to undermine democracy, freedom, and the rule of law”. He also warned that anyone elected to the Constituent Assembly could become the target of US sanctions because of their role “undermining democratic processes and institutions in Venezuela”.
Among the sanctioned individuals were four senior officials who are involved with the assembly. They include Elías Jaua, the education minister charged with overseeing its creation, and Tarek William Saab, the president of the Republican Moral Council and close confidant of deceased president Hugo Chávez, who dubbed him “the revolution’s poet”.
The targeted individuals also include Néstor Reverol, the justice minister; Carlos Pérez, the head of the national police; and Jesus Suárez, head of the army.
One US official said the sanctions were part of a calculated escalation in pressure aimed at urging Mr Maduro not to proceed with the Constituent Assembly. He said the Trump administration would take even tougher action against Caracas if Mr Maduro did not heed the US warnings.
“We are very concerned about the rapid erosion of democracy and the move toward dictatorship by President Maduro. We see July 30 as a critical line that, if crossed, could be the end of democracy in Venezuela.”
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Opposition groups in Venezuela are ramping up protests ahead of Sunday’s election for candidates to the new assembly, which will have the power to dissolve Congress, rewrite the constitution and change the nation’s laws.
On Wednesday, they began a 48-hour nationwide strike. Protesters in some parts of the country used stones, ropes, logs and bags of rubbish to block roads, although in poorer areas where the government has more support many businesses opened as usual. Opposition leaders have urged people to descend on Caracas on Friday for a last-ditch march, but have yet to outline their plans for Sunday.
Mr Maduro’s opponents have been on the streets since April, calling for free elections and the release of political prisoners. About 100 people have died in the violence and thousands have been injured and arrested. The US official said there were an estimated 430 political prisoners in Venezuela, which he stressed was more than the combined total in all the other countries in the western hemisphere.
“I’m never going to be in favour of sanctions against my country,” said José Manuel Olivares, an opposition deputy in the Venezuelan Congress. “But if Venezuelan officials who can’t explain . . . why they have millions of dollars in the United States, who can’t explain why they have mansions, planes and yachts in the United States, if the US freezes their assets, well, let them explain themselves!”
Mr Trump has broad support within the US Congress to put more pressure on Venezuela. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said the new sanctions were an “important step” and said the Venezuelan leader’s effort to rewrite the constitution was a “dangerous step toward the complete dismantling of democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela”.
Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American Republican senator who has been one of the toughest lawmakers on Venezuela, said the latest sanctions were “only the beginning” for Mr Maduro and others that were abusing the Venezuelan people. “More sanctions await should Maduro move forward with Sunday’s fraudulent vote,” he said on Wednesday.
But the US efforts have come under some criticism in Europe over concerns that the problem is best tackled by Venezuela’s neighbours. Brussels has called on regional powers to create a “group of friends” accepted by government and opposition to help broker a settlement.
Such demands reflect apprehension among some European diplomats about the prospect of deepening US involvement in the crisis and a clear preference for Latin American countries to exercise their influence on Venezuela.
Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief, said it was “high time to put an end to the violence”, adding that the convening of the Constituent Assembly risks further polarising the country. “Respect for the National Assembly as the legitimate legislative body and the independence of the attorney-general, who should be able to act in an unfettered way, without fear of intimidation or threat, are crucial to preserve the confidence of the citizens in the state and in the judicial system,” she said on Wednesday.