US hits Nicolás Maduro with sanctions after Venezuela's 'sham' election

Sanctions freeze Venezuelan president’s assets under US jurisdiction and prevent US citizens from doing business with him

The US government has imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, after the election of a new legislative body to redraft the country’s constitution in a vote described by Washington as a “sham.”

Maduro hailed Sunday’s election as a popular mandate to dramatically recast the troubled state, but his political opponents have warned this could lead to the dissolution of existing powers and turn the country into a fully fledged dictatorship.

On Monday, he was added to the growing list of high-ranking Venezuelan officials target for sanctions which freeze any of Maduro’s assets under US jurisdiction, and prohibit US citizens from doing business with him.

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

Acording to Reuters, the US is still considering broader sanctions against Venezuela’s oil industry, which could prove devastating for a country which is already in a state of economic free fall.

The targeted sanctions against Maduro “send a loud message that the US is prepared to get tough,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

But the specific targeting of Maduro signals that for the moment “the US is not comfortable with broader sanctions,” he said.

“The international community’s options are not great because what hits the government the hardest is oil but anything that involves oil is going to hit Venezuelans hard too and they are already suffering.”

Last week, the US Treasury department imposed sanctions on 13 high-ranking officials including the head of the Electorate Council and the former treasurer of the state-run oil company PDVSA.

Because Venezuela relies on oil exports for 95% of its revenue, opposition figures have warned that broader sanction targeting the oil industry could further exacerbate the social and economic crisis facing the country.

At least 10 people died in clashes around Sunday’s vote, during one of the deadliest days in nearly four months of political unrest.

Maduro had insisted that a new constituent assembly would help restore peace in the oil-rich nation. But analysts warned that the vote was likely to further heighten tensions within the country – and further isolate it on the diplomatic stage.

At his first public appearance after the vote, Maduro struck a belligerent tone, threatening to jail opposition legislators and promising to restructure the office of attorney general Luisa Ortega, who has become a prominent and vocal critic of his government.

• At the heart of the crisis is a cratering economy and acute shortages of medicine and food, coupled with rising anger at a soaring crime rate and an increasingly authoritarian government

• The president, Nicolás Maduro, won a general election in 2013 on a platform of continuing his predecessor Hugo Chávez's socialist policies of using the country's oil riches to reduce inequality and lift people out of poverty, but falling oil prices have forced the government to curtail social programmes

• Opposition activists have been staging unrelenting protests against the government. 

“Some of them will end up in cells facing justice, while others will end up in a psychiatric ward because they have shown clear signs of insanity,” Maduro said on Sunday night. “We must impose order,” he said.

Ortega – who was appointed by Maduro’s predecessor and political patron Hugo Chávez – said that Venezuela’s government had “dictatorial ambitions,” and warned that the new assembly will put “absolute power” in the hands of a minority.

“What we are seeing is an ongoing radicalisation of the Maduro government,” said Angel Oropeza, a professor of political science at Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar university. “Instead of solving the country’s problems, Maduro is provoking the country’s isolation – and this favours no one.”

The country’s National Electoral Council said that over eight million votes had been cast but the figure was immediately disputed by the opposition, which accused the electoral body – which is allied with Maduro’s government – of inflating turnout figures.

Opposition estimates put the actual turnout at close to 2.5m. Photos and videos of virtually empty polling centres circulated widely on social media throughout Sunday. Independent analysts put the figure closer to 3m.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, dismissed the election as a sham.

Maduro’s sham election is another step toward dictatorship. We won't accept an illegit govt. The Venezuelan ppl & democracy will prevail.

— Nikki Haley (@nikkihaley) July 30, 2017

Further diplomatic isolation seems inevitable, however: countries across the region – including Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Paraguay – said they would not recognize the result on Sunday’s vote.

Maduro said he had received congratulations from the governments including Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Russia also expressed support for Maduro and in a thinly-veiled warning to the US said it hoped that countries which “apparently want to increase economic pressure on Caracas will display restraint and abandon their destructive plans”.

The British foreign minister, Boris Johnson, warned that Venezuela “stands on the brink of disaster” and urged Maduro to stop the escalation of tensions.

“It is time for the government to see sense and start working with the opposition on a way forward that brings the people of Venezuela back together,” Johson said in a statement.

The new 545-member constituent assembly is scheduled to be sworn in on Thursday, although Maduro hinted in his speech that it could be sooner. It is unclear how the assembly will function – or even where the members will meet.

Opposition leaders said that the new body will not help restore the rule of law in a country which has been rocked by almost daily street protests and violent repression.

“This is a process that died at birth. It has no legitimacy. Venezuelans don’t recognize it, nor does the international community. The message is clear: the government was defeated. They got, at best 3 million votes – that is more than 3 million less than when Maduro was elected four years ago,” said Julio Borges, head of the opposition-led National Assembly.

The assembly has made clear that it will not cooperate with the new body.

Political career

Nicolás Maduro has ruled Venezuela without two of the greatest assets possessed by his mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chávez. He has not been lucky. And he has no charisma.

Chávez enjoyed an oil bounty and sublime political talents that secured his power at home and reputation abroad.

Maduro, in contrast, inherited a wobbling economy addicted to high oil prices and a system of authoritarian populism dependent on showmanship and patronage. Oil prices tumbled and Maduro proved to be a fumbling showman, exposing the financial ineptitude and ideological hollowness of the “Bolivarian revolution”.

This could have doomed his presidency, which began in 2013 after Chávez died, but the former bus driver, a hulking bear of a man who rose up trade union ranks, turned out to be tenacious and ruthless.

Born into a working class family in Caracas in 1962, he left school without graduating and drove buses for the Caracas metro. He became a union organiser and early supporter of Chávez, who, after leading a failed coup, led a leftwing coalition to an electoral landslide in 1998.

Maduro was the speaker of the assembly before serving as Chávez’s foreign minister from 2006 to 2013, a visible if largely silent presence as the comandante held court on the world stage. Chávez anointed Maduro as his heir before succumbing to cancer.

The story of his rule – and Venezuela’s agony – is a determination to keep power amid economic collapse, humanitarian disaster and international condemnation. Since January 2019 his presidency has been disputed, with Juan Guaidó being sworn in as interim president, and recognised as Venezuela’s ruler by some international powers.

Crisis after crisis has buffeted his government – hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, power blackouts, mass protests, drone attacks, defections, US-led sanctions – and Maduro has remained standing, resolute, implacable.

It is a remarkable position for a man who, in a 2014 Guardian interview, described himself as a bit of a hippy and a fan of Led Zeppelin and John Lennon.

“I never aspired to be president,” he said. “I always honour something that commander Chávez told us: that while we were in these posts we must be clothed in humility and understand that we are here to protect the man and woman of the streets.”

Rory Carroll

“We will continue with our duty and our commitment to the people,” said the assembly’s president, Julio Borges, who added that deputes they will continue to hold sessions in the public building “where the people placed them” – despite government threats that the newly elected constituent assembly could replace them.

The opposition is calling for more street protests, and on Monday a vigil was held for those who died during Sunday’s poll. According to the interior ministry, ten people died, and seven police suffered serious burns when an explosive device targeted a motorcycle convoy in the capital, Caracas.

Yet, the general mood among people in Caracas was one of defiance.

“We succeeded in showing the world how rogue this government is,” said María Blanco, a 39-year-old economist who has been unemployed for the past two years.

“We will remain steadfast in our determination, just as we have done for the past four months,” said Carlos Méndez, a 34-year-old bike messenger. “We are prepared for whatever comes next and stand firm in our fight against this dictatorship which is nearing its end. We must fight to recover our freedom and our democracy.”


Virginia López and Sibylla Brodzinsky

The GuardianTramp

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