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US threatens sanctions over proposed changes to Venezuelan constitution

A demonstrator affected by tear gas is evacuated during clashes with the Bolivarian National Guard, at El Hatillo municipality outside Caracas, Venezuela Picture Fernando Llano/AP
By Hannah Dreier and Joshua Goodman

The Trump administration has warned that it might impose more sanctions on Venezuelan officials over President Nicolas Maduro's push to rewrite the constitution.

"What President Maduro is trying to do yet again is trying to change the rules of the game," Michael Fitzpatrick, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs said.

"The actions that were taken yesterday may well give us new reasons for considering additional individualised sanctions."

The warning comes as pressure is building on the Trump administration from Congress to act more forcefully to put pressure on Mr Maduro.

Yesterday a bipartisan group of senators said it would introduce legislation providing humanitarian assistance to Venezuela while toughening sanctions against corrupt officials.

The legislation also instructs the intelligence community to prepare a partly unclassified report on Venezuelan government officials' involvement in corruption and drug trafficking.

Opposition leaders called for a major march yesterday in Caracas seeking to keep the heat on President Maduro after a month of unrelenting protests.

On Tuesday, protesters disrupted traffic in the capital by blocking streets with broken concrete, twisted metal and flaming piles of rubbish.

Police used tear gas to scatter demonstrators as they have almost every day for weeks.

Mr Maduro began the week by signing a decree to begin the process of rewriting Venezuela's constitution, which was pushed through in 1999 by his predecessor and mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez.

Opposition leaders called the planned constitutional assembly a ploy to keep Mr Maduro and his allies in power by putting off regional elections scheduled for this year and a presidential election that was to be held in 2018.

Opinion polls have suggested the socialists would lose both elections badly at a time of widespread anger over triple-digit inflation and shortages of food and other goods.

The proposed US legislation, written before Mr Maduro's latest move, is co-sponsored by Sen Ben Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen Marco Rubio, the author of earlier sanctions legislation on Venezuela.

It also has the support of Sen John Cornyn, former Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, as well as Republican Sen John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The US has already sanctioned several Venezuelan officials, including, in February, vice-president Tareck El Aissami, for allegedly being a major cocaine trafficker.

The new legislation seeks to put into law executive action by the Obama administration that targeted officials involved in corruption and found to "undermine democratic governance" with sanctions freezing any US assets and banning them from entry into the US.

It also would mandate $10 million (£7.75 million) a year in humanitarian assistance to Venezuela.

President Maduro has rejected such aid offers as attempts by the US to pave the way for foreign intervention.

It also calls on the Trump administration to "take all necessary steps" to prevent Rosneft from gaining control of critical US energy infrastructure.

The Russian government-controlled company is a major creditor to Venezuelan state-run oil giant PDVSA and recently took a nearly 50 per cent stake in its US subsidiary Citgo as collateral for a new loan.

South American governments have criticized Mr Maduro's move in stronger language than they have used so far for his government, with Brazil calling the decree a "coup".

And Venezuela's foreign minister came away empty-handed after seeking support at Tuesday's meeting of the left-leaning Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

Although he has hinted that some members of the constitutional assembly will be chosen by voters, President Maduro has given no details on how the body might be picked, leading many to predict the selection process will favour the socialists.

The president said on Tuesday that he hoped the opposition would join in the process of creating a new constitution.

"They don't realise how lost they are in their violence. I'm extending my hand and asking them to come to the constitutional convention," he said.

Venezuela's congress, which has an opposition majority, ignored that on Tuesday, officially rejecting the idea of holding a constitutional assembly.

It said Venezuelan voters should decide whether to call one, though the rejection was a symbolic gesture because congress has no power to block such a gathering.

Venezuela's constitution was last rewritten in 1999, early in Mr Chavez's 14-year presidency as he launched a socialist revolution in this oil-exporting nation.

President Chavez called his new constitution the best in the world, predicting it would last centuries.

He carried around a blue pocket-size version of the charter, and would often whip it out and say: "This is our Bible. After the Bible, this."

At least 29 people have died in the unrest of the past month and hundreds have been injured.

On Tuesday, the government suspended for 180 days the right to carry guns.

The unrest erupted after an attempt to nullify the powers of the opposition-controlled, but a growing number of people have joined to show their anger over Venezuela's economic ruin and violent crime.

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