US President Donald Trump on Monday warned Caracas of “economic actions” if Nicolas Maduro delivers on his bid to rewrite the constitution, calling the Venezuelan president a “bad leader who dreams of being a dictator.
“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Trump said in a statement.
“If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions,” he said, without elaborating on what those measures would be.
Trump praised the Venezuelan opposition’s unsanctioned vote that saw more than a third of the country’s voters reject Maduro’s plan to redraft the constitution.
“Yesterday, the Venezuelan people again made clear that they stand for democracy, freedom, and rule of law,” Trump said.
“Yet their strong and courageous actions continue to be ignored by a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator.”
The US State Department also applauded Sunday’s symbolic poll, and encouraged “governments in the hemisphere and around the world to call on President Maduro to suspend this process which only seeks to undermine democracy in Venezuela.”
The strike call, issued on Monday, was part of what the opposition called a “final offensive” aimed at forcing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro out through early elections before his term ends in 2019.
On Sunday, in an event organized by the opposition, more than a third of Venezuela’s 19 million voters rejected Maduro’s bid to have a citizens’ body called a “Constituent Assembly” elected on July 30 to redraft the constitution.
Several countries lauded the balloting.
The EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said that Maduro should suspend his plan, or he “risks further polarizing the country and increasing confrontation.”
However Maduro and his government, backed by a loyal military, have dug in against the opposition tactics and the international criticism.
Despite growing public anger at food and medicine shortages under a spiralling economic crisis that has fed into the opposition movement, authorities in Caracas portray the efforts against them as illegitimate and the result of interference from the “imperialist” United States.
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“We are calling all the country to take part in a massive and violence-free protest through a nationwide civic strike for 24 hours,” said one leader in the opposition coalition, Freddy Guevara.
He said the stoppage was a “mechanism for pressure and to prepare for the definitive escalation to take place next week.”
There were fears, however, that the stepped-up confrontation could worsen violence in Venezuela’s streets. Since April, when anti-Maduro protests and police pushback turned bloody, 96 people have died.
The opposition set the scene for the strike with its vote Sunday, which it called a “plebiscite” but which the government dismissed as “illegal.”
Electoral authorities, who have systematically sided with Maduro against the opposition-controlled legislature, denied authorization for the balloting.
Academics who oversaw the symbolic poll as guarantors of its credibility counted a turnout of more than seven million voters, undermining legitimacy for Maduro’s future Constituent Assembly.
Brazil’s foreign ministry said in a statement “the high turnout in the plebiscite… was an unmistakable sign the Venezuelan people want democracy quickly restored.” It, too, called on Maduro to shelve his Constituent Assembly idea.
Venezuela’s opposition, invigorated by the voter support and the international reactions, clearly was keen to seize the moment.
“The mandate the people have given us is clear,” said Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
Borges said the vote showed a public desire to see Maduro leave power before his term ends.
Political analyst John Magdaleno told AFP that “there is evidence of a persistent and durable demand for political change.”
The result of Sunday’s vote may not have been binding, but Venezuela “sent a clear message to the national executive and the world,” announced Central University of Venezuela president Cecilia Garcia Arocha, one of several experts who oversaw Sunday’s vote.
Garcia noted that 6,492,381 voted in the country and 693,789 voted abroad, according to a count of 95 percent of ballots. Final results would be released Monday, she said.
According to Borges, once all ballots are counted, there will be some 7.5 million votes, which he said would be sufficient to overturn Maduro’s mandate if there were a recall referendum.
To lend weight to the vote, a group of former Latin American presidents, including Mexico’s Vicente Fox, who was declared “persona non grata” by the government, took part as observers.
But Luis Vicente Leon, head of the polling firm Datanalisis, said the opposition’s challenge now was to leverage the vote to “crack” Maduro’s stance and “press for negotiations that would give an peaceful chance for change.”
The opposition has accused Maduro of driving the country into bankruptcy, and of planning to use the Constituent Assembly to entirely sideline the legislature.
For many ordinary Venezuelans suffering under shortages of basic goods, sky-high inflation and climbing unemployment, the vote was a way of expressing frustration at the president and his policies.
Yet Maduro has insisted his proposed Constituent Assembly is “the only path” to peace and economic recovery. Thus far, he has shown no sign of backing down.