A months-long confrontation in Venezuela is intensifying over elections scheduled for this weekend.
"As our sanctions demonstrate, the United States is standing by the Venezuelan people in their quest to restore their country to a full and prosperous democracy", U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. The vote is something new.
With the approach of controversial elections on Sunday to pick a 545-seat Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution, the opposition and the Maduro government skirmished in the streets. Since then, confrontations between the Assembly and Maduro's government, controlled by loyalists of late President Hugo Chávez, have been incessant. His opponents say that a new constitution could well lead to the cancelation of elections. And that would mean the end, finally, of democracy in Venezuela.
The opposition claimed Maduro was creating a dictatorship. "We are going to make a wonderful act of reaffirmation of peace with the Constituent Assembly, preparing for peace".
SIEGEL: Well, now the US has weighed in. El Aissami is the most senior Venezuelan official to ever be targeted by the U.S.
Now, both sides are rallying support ahead of Sunday's vote.
The Treasury Department has said that it's introducing sanctions against 13 present and former senior officials from Maduro's government, which means their assets will be frozen and that USA citizens, for example, will be banned from doing business with them. They want global observers to come to make sure that these elections are genuine. Where does Maduro want to take the country? Maduro is increasingly relying on security forces to keep power.
More than 100 people have died in four months of anti- government protests.
"We're on the brink of their trying to annihilate the republic that you swore to defend", he says. Some have led to violence. The oil-rich South American country, which was in the second day of a two-day general strike that shuttered businesses nationwide, has also seen thousands of injuries and arrests. And it started today, and it will go on tomorrow. "I think I'll strike for 48 hours", said one Caracas resident, Maria Auxiliadora.
President Maduro is holding elections for a new assemblyREUTERS
Venezuelan leader Maduro has slammed the new U.S. sanctions against his regime as "insolent" and "imperialist". Parts of Caracas were - came to pretty much a total standstill.
Lander's mother, Zugeimar Armas, who has kept her son's room intact since his death in early June, said that regardless of whether her son was killed by the National Guard or an improvised bomb, she blames the government.
"These sanctions are a fresh attempt to persuade Maduro to cancel Sunday's elections for a new assembly that'll have the power to rewrite Venezuela's constitution", according to NPR's Phillip Reeves.
REEVES: Well, there's no outward sign of him backing down. Through the U.S. Treasury Department, all assets under U.S. jurisdiction held by the 13 individuals have been frozen, and U.S. citizens are now prohibited from dealing with them.
He warned that anybody elected to the Constituent Assembly could also be slapped with U.S. sanctions.
"If that represents a risk that they sentence me again to Ramo Verde or any other jail in Venezuela, I am willing to take that risk", Lopez said. And of course, the key country in all of this is Cuba.
While the movement was to continue throughout the day Thursday, before a big demonstration on Friday, many streets were blocked, mainly in the south-east and east of the venezuelan capital, traditional heartlands of the opposition.
In a Twitter post, Diosdado Cabello, the vice president of the ruling Socialist Party, said Venezuela remained "absolutely calm".
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Phil Reeves in Rio de Janeiro.
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