Maduro threat­ens protest lead­ers

The U.S. an­nounces sanc­tions against the Venezue­lan pres­i­dent: ‘He is now a dic­ta­tor.’

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Mery Mo­gol­lon and Chris Kraul Special cor­re­spon­dents Mo­gol­lon and Kraul re­ported from Cara­cas and Bo­gota, Colom­bia, re­spec­tively.

CARA­CAS, Venezuela — Em­bold­ened by a vi­o­lence­marred vote to elect a new con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly, Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro promised Mon­day to take puni­tive mea­sures against protest lead­ers, the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled congress, the news me­dia and his at­tor­ney gen­eral, in­clud­ing pos­si­ble jail terms.

In re­sponse to the vote, which was widely de­nounced in­ter­na­tion­ally as il­le­git­i­mate, the United States an­nounced sanc­tions against Maduro, mak­ing him the fourth head of state be­ing sub­ject to such re­stric­tions. Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven T. Mnuchin said the gov­ern­ment was freez­ing any as­sets Maduro held in the United States.

“Maduro is not just a bad leader,” na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor H.R. McMaster said at a White House news con­fer­ence with Mnuchin. “He is a now a dic­ta­tor.”

The other heads of state be­ing sanc­tioned by the U.S. are North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Syria’s Bashar As­sad and Zim­babwe’s Robert Mu­gabe.

Ear­lier in the day, Maduro had de­liv­ered a cel­e­bra­tory speech in Bo­li­var Plaza in cen­tral Cara­cas, the cap­i­tal.

“The con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly will do away with par­lia­men­tary im­mu­nity for whom it should be can­celed. The assem­bly will al­low [the im­po­si­tion of] or­der,” he said. “Some will end up in a jail cell.”

Maduro spoke af­ter the Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil claimed that a higher-thanex­pected 8.1 mil­lion peo­ple, or 41.5% of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers, turned out Sun­day to elect 537 mem­bers to the new assem­bly, which could con­vene as early as Thurs­day to draft a new con­sti­tu­tion.

Those fig­ures were sharply dis­puted by both the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion and by in­de­pen­dent an­a­lysts. Op­po­si­tion lead­ers, who urged protesters to boy­cott the vote they con­sider a sham to per­pet­u­ate Maduro’s pres­i­dency, in­sisted that exit polls showed that no more than 3.6 mil­lion peo­ple cast bal­lots — about 18.5% of reg­is­tered vot­ers.

Crit­ics also said that turnout was dis­torted by what they de­scribed as a forced vote by pub­lic em­ploy­ees, who oth­er­wise risked los­ing their jobs.

There is fear that the new char­ter could hand Maduro dic­ta­to­rial pow­ers and ab­ro­gate the demo­crat­i­cally elected Na­tional Assem­bly. The United States, Colom­bia, Mex­ico, Spain, the United King­dom and sev­eral other gov­ern­ments have said any new con­sti­tu­tion to emerge from the assem­bly is in their eyes il­le­git­i­mate.

The deeply un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent went ahead with the assem­bly vote de­spite re­pu­di­a­tion from for­eign lead­ers and opin­ion polls that showed nearly three­quar­ters of Venezue­lans thought a new con­sti­tu­tion to be il­le­gal or un­nec­es­sary. Re­cent polls have put Maduro’s ap­proval rat­ing as low as 20%.

The pres­i­dent’s threats of pos­si­ble jail terms for op­po­si­tion fig­ures re­in­forced fears of in­creased re­pres­sion in the af­ter­math of Sun­day’s vot­ing. Maduro has specif­i­cally threat­ened to jail op­po­si­tion law­maker Freddy Gue­vara, a prom­i­nent as­sem­bly­man and for­mer stu­dent leader, whom he ac­cuses of in­cit­ing vi­o­lence.

Maduro crit­i­cized the three pri­vate TV broad­cast­ers, Televen, Globo­vi­sion and Venevi­sion, for their cov­er­age of the elec­tion and the week­end’s vi­o­lent events, as well as Atty. Gen. Luisa Ortega Diaz, who de­clared the new assem­bly to be in vi­o­la­tion of the 1999 con­sti­tu­tion. “We are in com­mu­ni­ca­tional com­bat against the lies of the broad­cast­ers,” Maduro said.

In his speech on na­tional tele­vi­sion, Maduro said he re­ceived con­grat­u­la­tory mes­sages from the fel­low left­ist lead­ers of Cuba, Nicaragua and Bo­livia.

“It’s when im­pe­ri­al­ism chal­lenges us that we prove wor­thy of the blood of our lib­er­a­tors,” Maduro said, re­fer­ring to 19th cen­tury Venezue­lan in­de­pen­dence lead­ers.

At a news con­fer­ence Mon­day, the at­tor­ney gen­eral, Ortega Diaz, whose of­fice ful­fills the func­tion of pub­lic ad­vo­cate, said that the new assem­bly runs counter to the spirit of late Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez, who was Maduro’s men­tor, and that it has iso­lated Venezuela in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

“The ob­ject of the con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly is do away with what­ever ob­sta­cles re­main to ab­so­lute power,” said Ortega Diaz. “We are con­fronting a crime against hu­man­ity.”

The vot­ing was marred with vi­o­lence in sev­eral cities across Venezuela, with the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice con­firm­ing at least 10 deaths from late Satur­day through Sun­day. Un­of­fi­cial sources were re­port­ing ad­di­tional deaths. Among the dead was one con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly can­di­date, Jose Felix Pineda, who was shot Satur­day night at his home in Bo­li­var state.

A bomb ex­ploded Sun­day in east Cara­cas, in­jur­ing seven na­tional po­lice of­fi­cers. Many streets in the cap­i­tal re­mained blocked Mon­day morn­ing with trash, bricks and aban­doned ve­hi­cles that protesters had placed there.

At least 120 peo­ple have died since late March in clashes with po­lice and na­tional guard mem­bers. About 3,500 have been in­jured and 5,000 ar­rested through Sun­day.

Protests, which are ex­pected to con­tinue this week, were pro­voked by a Supreme Court rul­ing in late March that de­prived the Na­tional Assem­bly of its law­mak­ing pow­ers and trans­ferred them to Maduro’s dis­cre­tion. Al­though the rul­ing was par­tially re­scinded, protests have con­tin­ued over con­tin­u­ing food and medicine short­ages, ris­ing crime and the pres­i­dent’s au­to­cratic gov­ern­ing style.

On Mon­day, U.S. State Depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert de­nounced the elec­tion of the new body, which she said is “de­signed to re­place the le­git­i­mately elected Na­tional Assem­bly and un­der­mine the Venezue­lan peo­ple’s right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.” Last week, the U.S. an­nounced sanc­tions against 13 Venezue­lan of­fi­cials and warned that more eco­nomic penal­ties soon could be an­nounced.

U.S. Rep. Eliot L. En­gel (D-N.Y.), the ranking mem­ber of the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, is­sued a state­ment call­ing the elec­tion a “sham,” and say­ing that by hold­ing it, Maduro “took one of the fi­nal steps in mak­ing his coun­try a full­blown dic­ta­tor­ship.”

Hen­rique Capriles, the gov­er­nor of Mi­randa state and a Maduro critic, urged Venezue­lans to con­tinue to protest.

The new con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly may be presided over by Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, or by Dios­dado Ca­bello, the hard-line vice pres­i­dent of the United So­cial­ist Party of Venezuela, founded by Chavez.

Julio Borges, who pre­sides over the Na­tional Assem­bly, told re­porters Mon­day that mem­bers of congress will not aban­don the Fed­eral Leg­isla­tive Palace, de­spite the specter of “clashes, force and vi­o­lence .... The Assem­bly was elected by 14 mil­lion Venezue­lans and is the only elected and le­git­i­mate au­thor­ity.”

Univer­sity of Mi­ami in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions pro­fes­sor Bruce Ba­gley warned that Maduro may find the deeply po­lar­ized coun­try to be un­govern­able in the af­ter­math of four months of vi­o­lent protests that show no sign of abat­ing.

Ron­aldo Schemidt AFP/Getty Images

PRES­I­DENT Ni­co­las Maduro cel­e­brates the re­sults of the vote to elect a new con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly in Venezuela. “The assem­bly will al­low [the im­po­si­tion of] or­der,” Maduro said. “Some will end up in a jail cell.”

Evan Vucci Associated Press

U.S. NA­TIONAL se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor H.R. McMaster, right, with Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven T. Mnuchin.

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