Venezuela bans protests ahead of controversial vote

Venezuela bans protests ahead of controversial vote

The opposition is boycotting the vote, saying the election rules were rigged to guarantee Maduro a majority and arguing that a new constitution could replace democracy with a single-party authoritarian system. The constituent assembly is aimed at bringing the nation back together to rewrite the constitution, but the opposition fears its ultimate goal is to bypass the National Assembly that it controls.

In announcing the United States sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said America was "standing by the Venezuelan people in their quest to restore their country to a full and prosperous democracy".

Eugenia Santandar in Caracas told AFP she bought canned and frozen food to ride out the political storm: "We must prepare ourselves not to die of hunger", she said.

Hours after the national strike gripped the country Wednesday, the US Treasury Department announced it is slapping sanctions against 13 Venezuelan government officials.

The most serious of the potential future steps would be financial sanctions that would halt dollar payments for the country's oil, starving the government of hard currency, or a total ban on oil imports to the United States, Venezuela's biggest customer.

The Trump administration is keeping all options on the table, including possible sanctions on Venezuela's oil sector, if President Nicolas Maduro goes ahead with plans to create a controversial new congress, a US official said on Wednesday.

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Venezuelan opposition activists protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on 15 May 2017.

"I closed last week, but now I need to open in order to eat", said Isabel Fernandez, 36, who sells vegetables at a market in the Catia neighborhood of the capital where all the stalls were open albeit with fewer customers than normal. They are against his attempt to rewrite the constitution through a constituent assembly whose members are set to be chosen Sunday in an election.

Among those sanctioned on Wednesday were: national elections director Tibisay Lucena, PDVSA finance vice president Simon Zerpa and former PDVSA executive Erik Malpica, as well as prominent former ministers Iris Varela and Elias Jaua.

Colombian airline Avianca Holdings SA said on Thursday it will suspend flights to and from Venezuela immediately, instead of on a previously announced date of August 16, due to operational and security difficulties.

Some 70 per cent of Venezuelans oppose the Constituent Assembly, according to polling firm Datanalisis.

The leftist leader was also feeling the heat at home, where neighbors gathered from dawn across Venezuela to block roads with rubbish, stones and tape, while many stores remained shut.

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After the strike, the opposition has planned a demonstration for Friday billed as a "takeover of Caracas".

USA officials said the sanctions were a warning not to follow through with Sunday's planned election for a Constituent Assembly tasked with rewriting the constitution without the opposition-controlled Congress. "The government of the world?" he said in a speech.

Maduro critics launched the 48-hour strike Wednesday morning, deploring the possibility that their President could gain more sweeping powers. He calls on Venezuelans "to stop this with peaceful resistance and deep commitment to our efforts".

REEVES: Yeah. They're piling pressure on Maduro to call off these elections on Sunday.

SIEGEL: Yes. As you say, there have been protests. "I ask you not to be accomplices in the annihilation of the republic".

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