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US sanctions 13 Venezuelan officials, threatens more if election proceeds

The Trump administration has imposed sanctions against 13 senior Venezuelan officials and threatened “strong and swift” measures if Caracas goes ahead with elections for the constitutional assembly, the move US officials call a threat to democracy.

Among the 13 officials placed on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list for “undermining democracy” are President of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council Tibisay Lucena, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, national police chief  Carlos Perez, army commander General Jesus Suarez, and National Guard commander Sergio Rivero.

The vice-president for finance of Venezuela’s state oil corporation PDVSA, Simon Zerpa, also made the sanctions list.

“Anyone elected to the National Constituent Assembly should know that their role in undermining democratic processes and institutions in Venezuela could expose them to potential US sanctions,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday.

Under the sanctions, the blacklisted officials are barred from traveling to the US, any assets they may have in the US will be frozen, and Americans are prohibited in doing business with them.

Speaking to reporters on background, two senior Trump administration officials said the sanctions were a message to the government in Caracas not to proceed with the election for the Constitutional Assembly, scheduled for July 30.

“It is our hope that Maduro will change his mind, but if he does go through with it, they can expect strong and swift economic actions,” one official said. Potential future measures include financial sanctions that would ban the use of dollars in buying and selling Venezuelan oil, or a total ban on oil imports into the US, Venezuela’s biggest customer.

President Nicolas Maduro says that Sunday’s election is the only way of establishing a legitimate government and restoring peace after four months of violent protests that have claimed over 100 lives.

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In March, Venezuela’s Supreme Court dissolved the National Assembly, saying the legislature was in contempt of the law for swearing in lawmakers whose elections were ruled invalid. The assembly had been controlled by Maduro’s opponents since January 2016.

US officials described the election as an “incredible threat to democratic institutions” and a line that, if crossed, “could be the end of democracy in Venezuela.”

“We’re currently continuing to encourage governments around the hemisphere to call on the Venezuelan government to call off the constitution process,” the officials said.

On Monday, Maduro accused the US of plotting “regime change” in Caracas, after CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a comment about discussing “transition” in Venezuela with the authorities in Mexico and Colombia.

“Suffice to say, we are very hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela,” Pompeo said over the weekend at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, adding that he recently discussed the issue during his visit to Mexico City and Bogota, “trying to help them understand the things they might do so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world.”

Asked about Pompeo’s statement Wednesday, the Trump administration officials said he was “speaking on his own behalf” and that they had no further comment.

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