MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The US government sanctioned Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro just one day after the socialist leader held a controversial vote to rewrite the constitution, further isolating the politically embattled country.
“Yesterday’s illegitimate elections confirm that Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people,” Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said on Monday in a statement announcing the sanctions.
The designation freezes Maduro’s assets in the US and prohibits Americans from dealing with him.
"The threats and sanctions from the Empire don't intimidate me. Nothing in this world intimidates me," Maduro said in response to the US action during a news conference. "I have nothing to fear from God because he loves me."
Then on Tuesday, reports began to emerge that two of Venezuela's leading opposition figures were taken from their homes in the middle of the night by state security agents.
The wife of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez posted a video on Twitter of her husband being taken away during the night.
"They've just taken Leopoldo from the house," Lilian Tintori posted. "We don't know where he is or where they're taking him."
Allies of former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma also posted a video online that appeared to show him being put into a car while neighbors screamed for help. A woman is heard to cry: "They're taking Ledezma! It's a dictatorship!"
Both Lopez and Ledezma have been outspoken critics of Maduro and have been detained and imprisoned in the past.
In a statement Tuesday, President Donald Trump condemned Maduro's actions.
"Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ledezma are political prisoners being held illegally by the regime," Trump said. "The United States holds Maduro – who publicly announced just hours earlier that he would move against his political opposition – personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr. Lopez, Mr. Ledezma, and any others seized. We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners."
The move to sanction Maduro has brought the US one step closer to imposing broader economic sanctions on the country, which are both feared for the impact they may have on the Venezuelan people and believed to be necessary to put an end to Maduro’s government.
Should the sanctions on Maduro not have their intended effect, the US Congress is considering targeting Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, followed by the Socialist Party’s No. 2, Diosdado Cabello, and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino in future sanctions, a Venezuelan official with knowledge of the ongoing discussion told BuzzFeed News.
The official, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter, added that if individual sanctions do not stem the political crisis, President Donald Trump’s administration will likely target Venezuela’s oil sector, which accounts for 95% of its export earnings and about 25% of its gross domestic product. According to the official, the US would first stop selling refined gasoline to Venezuela, then issue a full oil embargo.
Sanctions on the oil and gas industry, experts agree, would hurt average Venezuelans who are already struggling to find medicine and get enough food for a single daily meal. It would also potentially cause inflation, already in the triple digits, to surpass 1,000%.
"It could bring Venezuela to its knees," Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the nonprofit Americas Society/Council of the Americas, told BuzzFeed News.
David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office of Latin America, said economic sanctions could cause a famine in the country, which was once one of the most prosperous in Latin America.
Yet some argue that this may be the only way to halt Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The elections on Sunday that caused Maduro to be placed on the US’s sanctions list for Venezuela was for members of a new constituent assembly that will redraft the constitution. Those members now have the power to dissolve the National Assembly, one of the last opposition holdouts in the country.
At least 10 demonstrators were killed during clashes with the police, making it the deadliest day in three months marked by regular protests and increasing fractures within the ruling party. "All political rights are threatened. We are facing a dictatorial ambition," said Attorney General Luisa Ortega, who was close to the late former president Hugo Chávez, on Monday.
"It would be very difficult to achieve a political change without economic sanctions, which would end the corruption schemes the government lives off,” Enrique Altimari, the international representative for Primero Justicia, one of the main opposition parties, told BuzzFeed News.
In May, the Treasury Department added eight members of the Maduro-friendly Supreme Court to its sanctions list. Earlier this year, the Office of Foreign Assets Control designated Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, referring to him as a prominent drug trafficker.
Maduro is the fourth head of state currently sanctioned by the Treasury. Others include North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.