Move comes days before vote to create assembly that could rewrite Constitution
The U.S. on Wednesday sanctioned 13 current and former Venezuelan officials in the run-up to a controversial vote Sunday that could have far-reaching consequences for the nation’s political climate.
The Constituent Assembly would have the power to rewrite the Constitution and detour the opposition-controlled legislature as Venezuelans grapple with a biting economic crisis that has led to shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation, due in part to low crude oil prices.
The planned Assembly has been criticized by the opposition as a de facto coup that would consolidate power around President Nicolas Maduro.
The U.S. has urged Caracas to change course on the assembly, warning that it would lead to hard-hitting economic penalties.
A senior administration official speaking to reporters on condition that he not be named said anyone who joins the assembly can expect to be targeted by U.S. sanctions.
The blacklistings announced Wednesday are part of a steady buildup of pressure on Venezuelan officials and "a reminder that we're watching and the world is watching", the official said.
"The decisions they make now and in the future will have consequences," he said.
Among those sanctioned are four individuals the Treasury Department said "are actively pursuing" the Constituent Assembly, including Tibisay Lucena Ramirez, president of the National Electoral Council; the head of the assembly process, Elias Jose Jaua Milano; Tarek William Saab Halabi, Venezuela’s ombudsman; and Maria Iris Varela Rangel, a member of the assembly's presidential commission.
The opposition has carried out a vigorous campaign in recent months to try to push Maduro out of office through early elections.
The crisis has fueled public anger and massive protests that have left at least 100 people dead since April.
The Treasury Department said it designated a total of five current and former officials who it said are "responsible for the violence and repression".
Among them are Sergio Jose Rivero Marcano, the head of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard; Jesus Rafael Suarez Chourio, Venezuela's army chief; and Carlos Alfredo Perez Ampueda, the National Director of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Police.
Four other individuals were designated for alleged corruption.