CARACAS (AFP) – Venezuela’s government on Tuesday (July 18) defiantly brushed aside US President Donald Trump’s threat of economic sanctions by saying it will go ahead with the election of a controversial body to rewrite the country’s constitution.
“Nothing and nobody can stop it. The Constituent Assembly is happening,” Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada told a news conference. “The Venezuelan people are free and will respond united to the insolent threat made by a xenophobic and racist empire.”
The sharp words came a day after Trump warned of “strong and swift economic actions” against Venezuela if the July 30 election of the Constituent Assembly was held. He did not specify what form those “actions” could take.
Venezuela, which is almost entirely reliant on its oil exports for revenues, ships a third of its crude production to the United States.
The country is deep in the grip of an economic crisis, with food and medicine scarce and inflation soaring to triple digits. That has fueled public anger, feeding into an opposition campaign and deadly protests to force President Nicolas Maduro out through early elections.
Part of the downturn stems from relatively low global prices for oil. But Venezuela’s opposition also blames mismanagement by Maduro, who has stepped up the nationalisation of businesses, employed the military to control food distribution, and imposed currency controls.
Maduro in turn blames an economic “war” against him that he says is fomented by the right-wing opposition in cahoots with the United States. The president has portrayed his plan to have a Constituent Assembly rewrite the constitution, as the only available path to “peace” and economic recovery.
The opposition, which controls the legislature, has resisted, buoyed by international condemnation of Maduro’s plan. It sees the Constituent Assembly as a tool to sideline the lawmakers in the National Assembly.
A 24-hour nationwide strike has been called for Thursday, launching what the opposition calls a “final offensive” to push Maduro out of office.
It follows an unofficial plebiscite held by the opposition last weekend in which 7.6 million voters – out of a total 19 million – cast ballots to reject the Constituent Assembly elections, and support early elections.
Trump on Monday gave vocal backing to the opposition in a statement, calling Maduro “a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator.”
“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” he said.
That led Moncada on Tuesday to say that the opposition had “prompted President Trump to commit open aggression against a Latin American country.” He called on “the people of Latin America and the Caribbean and the free people of the world to hear the magnitude of this brutal threat.”
Venezuela, however, is increasingly isolated internationally. Maduro’s plan for the constitutional rewrite has earned rebukes from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico and other Latin American nations, as well as the Organization of American States, the United Nations and the European Union.
Bolivia was one of the few to stand by Venezuela. Its president, Evo Morales, accused Trump of maneuvering towards an “intervention and domination of the Venezuelan people.”
“His goal is to grab its oil,” he said on his Twitter account.
The United States and Venezuela have had decades of tense relations, dating back to the time of Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor who died in 2013.
Venezuela’s foreign minister said Maduro had ordered a “profound review” of ties with the US. Neither country has had an ambassador in the other since 2010.
Mariano De Alba, an expert on international relations, said the international pressure could emphasise to Maduro “the costs for the government’s economic and political interests” if it goes through with the Constituent Assembly.
Groups giving the government its support, he said, could be persuaded “that the best option is to seek a negotiated solution, because that would be better than abruptly losing control of the country.”