US labels Venezuelan President Maduro 'dictator', hits him with sanctions over vote

VIDEO: REUTERS
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a military parade to celebrate Venezuela's independence in Caracas on July 5, 2017.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a military parade to celebrate Venezuela's independence in Caracas on July 5, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

CARACAS (AFP) - The United States hit Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with direct sanctions on Monday over a disputed and deadly weekend vote that, while consolidating his power, has largely isolated him at home and abroad as the "dictator" of a failing petro-state.

The US measures were unusual in that they targeted a sitting head of state, but their reach was mostly symbolic, freezing any US assets Maduro might have and banning people under US jurisdiction from dealing with him.

"Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people," US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Mexico, Colombia, Peru and other nations joined the US in saying they did not recognize the results of Sunday's election, which appointed a new "Constituent Assembly" superseding Venezuela's legislative body, the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

 

Maduro's own attorney general, Luisa Ortega - who broke with him months ago over his policies - also said she would not acknowledge the body, calling it part of the president's "dictatorial ambition" to do away with political and civil rights.

The European Union expressed "preoccupation for the fate of democracy in Venezuela" and said it, too, doubted it could accept the results.

However, Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia stood by Maduro, who shrugged off mass protests and a previous round of US sanctions on some of his officials to see through the election.

The National Electoral Council claimed more than 40 per cent of Venezuela's 20 million voters had cast ballots Sunday.

"It is the biggest vote the revolution has ever scored in its 18-year history," Maduro said, dressed in the red associated with the socialist revolution started by his late mentor, Hugo Chavez.

But the leader of the opposition congress, Julio Borges, said Venezuela has found itself "more divided and isolated in the world".

 

According to the opposition, voter turnout was closer to 12 per cent, a figure more aligned with the lack of lines that were seen at many polling stations.

Surveys by polling firm Datanalisis showed more than 70 per cent of Venezuelans were opposed the new assembly.

Further protests were called for Monday and beyond, stoking fears that the death toll in four months of protests against Maduro could rise beyond the more than 120 already recorded.

"I feel awful, frustrated with this fraud," said one Caracas resident, Giancarlo Fernandez, 35.

Demonstrators were ignoring a ban on protests put in place by Maduro that threatened up to 10 years in prison for violators.

Ten people died in violence surrounding Sunday's election, which saw security forces firing tear gas and, in some cases, live ammunition to put down protests. Among those killed were two teens and a Venezuelan soldier.

Uncontested by the opposition, and voted for by state employees fearful for their jobs, the Constituent Assembly was made up solely of members of Maduro's ruling Socialist Party.

Tasked with writing a new constitution, it has far-reaching powers - including the right to dissolve the National Assembly and change laws.

It is due to be installed on Wednesday. Its members include Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores.

The European Union condemned the "excessive and disproportionate use of force" by Venezuelan police and troops on Sunday.

A spokeswoman for the European Commission said: "A Constituent Assembly, elected under doubtful and often violent circumstances, cannot be part of the solution."

Russia, however, threw its weight behind Maduro and the election, backing the government turnout figure.

The foreign ministry in Moscow said in a statement it hopes countries "who apparently want to increase economic pressure on Caracas will display restraint and abandon their destructive plans." Bolivia echoed that, urging the world "to respect the democratic process that took place in Venezuela".

Yet analysts were in agreement that Maduro's move had swept away any vestige of democracy in Venezuela.

"Maduro's blatant power grab removes any ambiguity about whether Venezuela is a democracy," said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue research centre.

Eduardo Rios Ludena, a Venezuela specialist at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, said Maduro had "sacrificed democracy" by exaggerating the number of voters.

"In the short term, the Constituent Assembly gives a bit of breathing space to the government," he conceded, but added that grave economic consequences would follow.

Venezuela's 30 million citizens are suffering through shortages of basic goods. Sanctions against the all-important oil sector would worsen their situation, but could also destabilise the government, which is frenziedly printing money and running out of foreign currency reserves.