President Nicolas Maduro said that controversial plans to re-write Venezuela’s constitution will move ahead “now more than ever” following US President Donald Trump’s threat of economic sanctions.
Maduro, speaking late Tuesday to the country’s Defense Council, also said the government will launch a “special emergency justice plan” to capture anti-administration “conspirators,” who will then receive “exemplary punishment.”
The sharp words came after Trump on Monday warned of unspecified “strong and swift economic actions” against Venezuela if the July 30 Constituent Assembly election was held.
An unofficial plebiscite held by opponents to the leftist regime over weekend saw 7.6 million voters — out of an electorate of 19 million — reject the planned Constituent Assembly and support early elections.
The opposition, which controls the National Assembly, fears that Maduro’s plan is designed to keep the leftist administration in power indefinitely.
Trump slammed Maduro as “a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator,” and said that the United States “will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles.”
The United States and Venezuela have had decades of tense relations, dating back to the time of Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor who died in 2013.
Venezuela, which is almost entirely reliant on its oil exports for revenues, ships a third of its crude production to the United States.
Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada said Maduro had ordered a “profound review” of ties with Washington. Neither country has had an ambassador in the other since 2010.
– Maduro defiant –
“There is no power in this world that can break the will to be free and independent,” a defiant Maduro told the Defense Council, a gathering of most senior government officials.
“Now more than ever” Venezuela will proceed with the Constituent Assembly, he said.
Maduro’s tough rhetoric comes ahead of a 24-hour nationwide strike set for Thursday, launching what the political opposition calls a “final offensive” to push him out of office.
Venezuela has endured near-continuous protests for nearly four months that have left 97 people dead.
The country is in the midst of a deep economic crisis that includes soaring inflation, widespread crime, and a dearth of medicine, food and household basics.
Part of the economic downturn stems from relatively low global prices for oil, the country’s main export.
But Venezuela’s opposition also blames mismanagement by Maduro, who has stepped up the nationalization of businesses, employed the military to control food distribution, and imposed currency controls.
Maduro in turn blames an economic “war” against him that he claims is fomented by the right-wing opposition working with Washington.
The president claims that his plan to have a Constituent Assembly rewrite the constitution is the only available path to “peace” and economic recovery.
– Weak international support –
That constitutional rewrite plan however has earned rebukes from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and other Latin American nations, as well as Canada, the Organization of American States, the United Nations and the European Union.
Bolivia was one of the few to stand by Venezuela. Its leftist president, Evo Morales, accused Trump of maneuvering toward an “intervention and domination of the Venezuelan people.”
“His goal is to grab its oil,” he said on his Twitter account.
Mariano de Alba, an expert on international relations, said the international pressure could emphasize to Maduro “the costs for the government’s economic and political interests” if it goes through with the Constituent Assembly.
Groups giving the government its support, he said, could be persuaded “that the best option is to seek a negotiated solution, because that would be better than abruptly losing control of the country.”
Rioting broke out in different parts of Caracas on Tuesday after protesters blocked streets in the capital.
Government prosecutors said on Twitter that a man died in the northeastern state of Antoategui when he was “burned during a demonstration,” but gave no details or date of the alleged incident.
“Every Venezuelan must take in their own hands the responsibility to defend democracy,” said musician Wuilly Arteaga, a local celebrity who plays his violin during protests.
“We’re in the streets to defend our rights, the constitution and demand that Maduro leave,” he added.