Dueling Factions in Venezuela Stake Claims at Power
By Fabiola Sanchez
Caracas, Venezuela -- Pro- and anti-government factions dug themselves further into their trenches Monday amid Venezuela's deepening political crisis, with each side staking a claim to the powers granted them by dueling national assemblies.
The new chief prosecutor who replaced an outspoken government critic outlined plans for restructuring the Public Ministry, while the opposition-controlled National Assembly vowed to continue meeting at the stately legislative palace _ a short walk across a plaza from where the all-powerful constitutional assembly is expected to hold its next meeting Tuesday.
National Assembly president Julio Borges told fellow lawmakers they should keep an active presence in the building despite threats from the new assembly to swiftly strip them of any authority and lock up key leaders. Borges called the building, with its gold cupola, the ``symbol of popular sovereignty.''
``We are a testament to the fight for democracy,'' he said at a meeting cobbled together amid mounting uncertainty about the legislature's future. ``It should be known this assembly was true to its mandate.''
In theory, both the National Assembly and the pro-government constitutional assembly can rule simultaneously, but the new super body created through a July 30 election that drew international condemnation has the authority to trump any other branch of government _ and Venezuela's leaders have promised to do just that.
Since its installation Friday, the constitutional assembly has signalled that it will act swiftly in response to President Nicolas Maduro's commands, which have included calls to strip legislators of their constitutional immunity from prosecution.
``It should be clear: We arrived there to help President Nicolas Maduro,'' Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the ruling socialist party and member of the new assembly, told a crowd of supporters Monday. ``But also, to create strong bases for the construction of Bolivarian and Chavista socialism.''
Several hundred pro-government Venezuelans marched to the legislative palace, where opposition lawmakers were inside crafting a resolution disavowing the new assembly.
National Assembly members voted unanimously not to recognize any of the new super-body's decisions, which include removing chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz from power and installing a ``truth commission'' that will wield unusual authority to prosecute and levy sentences.
``The intent is to pursue those who think differently,'' lawmaker Delsa Solorzano said.
Brazil's ambassador to Venezuela, Ruy Pereira, attended the session in a show of support for the congress.
Cabello said that the constitutional assembly's decisions have all aligned strictly with the 1999 constitution crafted by the late President Hugo Chavez and that the new assembly would be in power for ``at least two years.''
``This is a completely legal process,'' he said.
Ortega Diaz's replacement, Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by Washington for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation's top human rights official, appeared on state television to both chastise the leader of the agency he will oversee and announce his plans to revamp it.
He criticized Ortega Diaz for ``fanning the flames'' of political conflict in Venezuela and said he would proceed with a ``logical restructuring'' of an office he deemed overly political and bureaucratic.
Ortega Diaz is not recognizing Saab as chief prosecutor, and both opposition leaders and foreign dignitaries have said they will not acknowledge him as Venezuela's top law enforcement official.
John Magdaleno, director of the Caracas-based consulting firm POLITY, said that rather than having co-existing assemblies and chief prosecutors, it is more likely that opposition-controlled institutions will be rendered powerless as Maduro's administration further consolidates Venezuela into an authoritarian state.
The opposition-led National Assembly ``will be a body that in principal co-exists with the constitutional assembly but that will surely be displaced in practice,'' Magdaleno said.
The widening political gulf comes as opposition parties face a rapidly approaching deadline to declare whether or not they will take part in scheduled December regional elections. Candidates are expected to sign up to run this week. Opposition members refused to participate in the July 30 election for delegates to the constitutional assembly but have thus far been divided on whether or not to take part in the upcoming vote for governors.
While Maduro's popular support is estimated to run at no higher than 20 per cent, some opposition leaders are skeptical of running in regional elections they fear could be rigged. The official turnout count in the constitutional assembly election has been questioned at home and abroad. The CEO of voting technology company Smartmatic said last week that the results were ``without a doubt'' tampered with and off by at least 1 million votes.
On Sunday, a band of 20 anti-government fighters attacked an army base in an apparent attempt to foment an uprising. The men managed to reach the barracks' weapons supply. Ten escaped, but two were killed and the remaining eight were captured after battling with soldiers for three hours, Maduro said.
Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said special units were being activated Monday to assist in the search for the escapees, who remained at large more than 24 hours after the attack.
Freddy Guevara, the first vice-president of the National Assembly, said the attack as a worrisome development.
``When people feel that all recourse _ electoral and constitutional _ is closed off, they can be tempted to support this kind of method,'' he said. ``Because they feel that there isn't another.''
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.
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Showdown Set in Venezuela as New Assembly Prepares for Power
By Fabiola Sanchez & Christine Armario Caracas, Venezuela -- Venezuela is nearing a showdown, with President Nicolas Maduro vowing to install a new constituent assembly that will supersede every other branch of government and opposition leaders calling for a mass protest to ensure delegates know their arrival is unwelcome.
The first meeting of the 545 delegates is expected to convene Friday at the legislative palace in Caracas _ only yards (meters) from the room where the opposition-controlled National Assembly holds its sessions.
The legislative palace has been witness to bloody clashes in recent weeks and Friday's installation of the all-powerful assembly, which Maduro has vowed to use to strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity, sets the stage for an intensified power struggle. Opposition lawmakers in congress have vowed they will only be removed by force.
``The only way they'll get us out of here is by killing us,'' declared Freddy Guevara, the National Assembly's first vice-president. ``They will never have the seat that the people of Venezuela gave us.''
Sunday's election of the constituent assembly has come under mounting scrutiny after the CEO of an international voting technology company said Wednesday that ``without any doubt'' the voter turnout numbers had been tampered with _ accusations that Maduro and the National Electoral Council have dismissed. A growing list of foreign nations has refused to recognize the assembly and many within Venezuela fear its installation will open a dark chapter in the nation's history.
``There has been a gradual erosion of democratic practice and this is a significant line that has been crossed,'' said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think-tank Inter-American Dialogue. ``To attach the term democracy to Venezuela with this new constituent assembly is on very weak ground.''
The U.S. State Department called the assembly illegitimate Thursday, saying the election was rigged to further entrench ``the Maduro dictatorship.''
``The United States will not recognize the National Constituent Assembly,'' spokeswoman Heath Nauert said.
On the eve of the assembly's installation, the Spanish Embassy in Caracas was attacked with gasoline bombs. Prosecutors said two individuals on a motorcycle launched the devices, which started a fire but caused no reported injuries.
Carlos Romero, a professor and foreign relations analyst in Caracas, called the incident ``extremely grave'' and said it could further complicate relations between Venezuela and Madrid. Spain's ambassador to Venezuela was among a group of legislators who visited the National Assembly on Tuesday in a show of support after the constituent assembly ellection.
Prominent constituent assembly members like Diosdado Cabello, the leader of the ruling socialist party, have said they plan to target the opposition-controlled congress and the country's chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, a longtime supporter of the late Hugo Chavez who recently broke with Maduro. As one of its first tasks, Maduro has ordered the assembly to declare Ortega Diaz's office in a state of emergency and entirely restructure it.
In a continuing show of defiance, Ortega Diaz filed papers Thursday seeking a court order to block installation of the new assembly. The request, filed to a lower court in an apparent attempt to circumvent the government-stacked Supreme Court, was almost certain to be denied.
She also ordered prosecutors to investigate the allegations of election tampering raised by Antonio Mugica, the head of the voting technology firm Smartmatic. Mugica told reporters in London on Wednesday that results recorded by his company's systems and those reported by the National Electoral Council show the official turnout count was off by at least 1 million votes.
Pledges by opposition lawmakers to remain in power no matter what action the constituent assembly takes have opened the possibility of two governing bodies operating side by side _ neither recognizing the other.
One opposition lawmaker, Henry Ramos Allup, said this week that if forcibly expelled from the legislative palace the National Assembly could potentially hold its sessions at another site.
Anti-government leaders are calling on Venezuelans to protest Friday as the new constituent assembly members take office.
The National Electoral Council said more than 8 million Venezuelans voted in the election, though independent analysts and opposition leaders contend the turnout was almost certainly less than half that figure.
Venezuela's president defiantly dismissed those allegations, telling the new constituent members Wednesday night that he not only stood by the official count, but believed a further 2 million people would have voted if not blocked by anti-government protesters.
With the opposition boycotting the election, virtually all the candidates were government supporters, so turnout was watched as one of the only indicators of how much popular support there is for the constituent assembly.
Despite questions surrounding the vote, Maduro has all but ensured there is nothing that can stop the government from seating the new delegates.
``They are bent on plowing ahead with this power grab,'' Shifter said, ``and this is not going to stand in the way.''
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.
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Vote Tampering Claims Jolt Venezuela on Eve of Assembly
By Fabiola Sanchez & Christine Armario
Caracas, Venezuela -- Revelations on Wednesday that turnout figures were apparently manipulated in a crucial vote for an all-powerful constituent assembly in Venezuela cast a deeper shadow over the controversial body shortly before it was to convene.
The official count of voters in Sunday's election was off by at least 1 million, according to the head of the voting technology firm Smartmatic _ a finding certain to sow further discord over a body that has been granted vast authority to rewrite Venezuela's constitution and override every branch of government.
Results recorded by Smartmatic's systems and those reported by Venezuela's National Electoral Council show ``without any doubt'' that the official turnout figure of more than 8 million voters was tampered with, company CEO Antonio Mugica told reporters in London. The international software company has provided voting technology in Venezuela since 2004.
Mugica said there was a 1 million vote discrepancy, but he did not specify whether his company's figures showed 1 million fewer, or 1 million more, voters participated in the election.
``Even in moments of deep political conflict and division we have been satisfied with the voting process and the count has been completely accurate'' previously in Venezuela, Mugica said. ``It is, therefore, with the deepest regret that we have to report that the turnout figures on Sunday, 30 July, for the constituent assembly in Venezuela were tampered with.''
Tibisay Lucena, the head of the National Electoral Council, dismissed Smartmatic's claim, calling it an ``opinion'' of a company that played only a secondary role in the election and had no access to complete data. ``A company located outside the country does not guarantee the transparency and credibility of the Venezuelan electoral system,'' she said.
Hours later, President Nicolas Maduro accused Smartmatic of bowing to U.S. pressure to ``stain'' the election results. Standing behind the electoral council's voter count, he proclaimed that an additional 2 million Venezuelans would have cast ballots if they hadn't been stopped by roadblocks erected by the socialist government's opponents.
``Nothing and no one can stop the victory of the people!'' Maduro said to applause from 500 members of the new assembly.
The president also announced that the assembly's installation was being delayed by a day, convening on Friday instead of Thursday in order to ``organize it well in peace and tranquility.'' The electoral council also must still provide 35 members with their credentials, he said.
Smartmatic's claim drew an immediate reaction from opposition leaders who have contended since Sunday's results were announced that the National Electoral Council inflated the turnout count. Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, said lawmakers were asking the nation's chief prosecutor to investigate election commission members for potential crimes.
``They are going to install a fraudulent constitutional assembly and no one can say with certitude that these people ... were those who won or if they were the product of a scheme,'' Borges said.
Even before Smartmatic's allegations, there were growing doubts over the official turnout count. The opposition _ a sizeable portion of the population _ boycotted the vote, and an independent exit poll concluded that less than half the government's figure cast ballots. Opposition leaders said counts from observers stationed in each municipality also suggested the government's numbers were inflated.
In an election in which virtually all the candidates were supporters of Maduro's ruling socialist party, turnout was one of the only indicators of how much popular support the constituent assembly might have.
Luis Emilio Rondon, one of five members on the electoral commission and the only who has sided with the opposition, said Tuesday that he had grave doubts about the accuracy of the count, in part because the commission had ordered fewer audits than in previous elections. He also said it did not use permanent ink to mark voters' fingers to ensure no one voted twice.
The electoral council has provided a total vote count and lists of individual winners but no details on how many votes each person received, or how many votes were cast in each region, as it has in previous elections.
``The controls that make our electoral system robust were, by and large, relaxed, and in some cases, eliminated,'' Rondon said.
Mugica said his company's automated election system is designed to show when results are manipulated but requires that a large number of auditors participate, from both the ruling and opposition parties, which he said did not happen during Sunday's vote.
``This would not have occurred if the auditors of all political parties had been present at every stage of the election,'' he said.
Smartmatic, which supplies services worldwide, was founded by Venezuelans in Caracas and began providing voting technology during the presidency of the late Hugo Chavez, who installed the nation's current socialist government. In the past, opposition members have questioned the validity of results, but the firm has maintained its impartiality.
Luis Vicente Leon, president of Datanalisis, a Caracas-based polling agency, said Smartmatic's finding was, ``without a doubt, the most devastating pronouncement yet for the credibility'' of the nation's electoral council.
Maduro called the vote in May after weeks of protests fed by anger at his government over food shortages, triple-digit inflation and high crime. He has argued that the body will help end the violence and protests that have left at least 125 dead, while also vowing the use the system to target enemies and solidify Venezuela as a socialist state.
Despite the unrest and plummeting popularity ratings, Maduro appears to have maintained the full support of the country's most important institutions, notably the armed forces. Top military figures have been given special status and are scattered throughout the government. They also are in charge of strategic areas such as food distribution in which Venezuelans say bribery is widespread.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Leonore Schick reported from London.
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Venezuela Official Says Vote Had High Turnout
A key ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says there was ``record'' participation in Sunday's election for a constitutional assembly that he says will surprise the opposition, whose leaders contend turnout was exceptionally low.
Ruling socialist party leader Diosdado Cabello says that while the official National Electoral Council results are still being counted, ``I can assure you there was record participation.''
Across Venezuela's capital, dozens of polling centres were virtually empty Sunday, including at many that saw hours-long lines of thousands voting in previous elections over the last two decades.
Organizers with Venezuela's opposition say they stationed observers at every polling site and the preliminary results show Sunday had a small fraction of the turnout seen in previous elections voted.
They say that any official numbers showing high participation are invalid.
The leader of Venezuela's ruling socialist party is brushing off criticisms from foreign governments that say they won't recognize Sunday's vote for a special assembly that will rule with nearly unlimited powers.
Party leader Diosdado Cabello says Venezuela has decided to be free from foreign meddling. In his words: ``What do we care what the world thinks?''
He called Sunday's election ``an ethical and moral victory over Venezuela's right.''
A rising number of foreign nations are vowing not to recognize the constituent assembly that President Nicolas Maduro and his allies have promised will remove opponents from power.
On Sunday, Peru, Argentina, Canada, Spain, Costa Rica, the U.S. and Mexico all announced they would not recognize the results. Colombia and Peru earlier said they did not consider the assembly legitimate.
A growing number of countries are vowing not to recognize the results of Venezuela's divisive election of a constituent assembly that could dramatically reshape the South American nation's government.
Officials from Argentina, Peru and the United States said Sunday that their governments would not recognize the vote, following similar statements from Colombia and Panama.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has tweeted that the vote a ``sham election'' that takes Venezuela ``another step toward dictatorship.''
Peru's government says the vote violates the Venezuelan constitution and deepens already significant divides within society.
Venezuela's chief prosecutor's office is reporting three deaths on the day of a controversial vote for a constituent assembly that opposition leaders fear will trigger the end of democracy in Venezuela.
The office tweeted that 28-year-old Angelo Mendez and 39-year-old Eduardo Olave were killed at a protest Sunday in Merida. Thirty-year-old Ricardo Campos was killed in a separate incident in Sucre.
Few details were provided on the deaths.
Leaders with the opposition Democratic Action party on Twitter identified Campos as the group's youth secretary in Sucre, a state in northern Venezuela east of the nation's capital.
The deaths bring to at least 116 those killed in nearly four months of political upheaval.
Venezuelans appear to be abstaining in massive numbers in a show of silent protest against a vote to select a constitutional assembly giving the government virtually unlimited powers. Across the capital on Sunday, dozens of polling places were empty or had a few dozens or hundreds of people outside, orders of magnitude less than the turnout in recent elections.
An Associated Press reporter toured more than two dozen polling places in neighbourhoods across the capital, including many traditional strongholds of the ruling socialist party in southern and western Caracas. Virtually all the polling places had seen hours-long lines of thousands of people in the elections of the last two decades of the socialist administration.
One site, a sports and cultural complex known as the Poliedro, had several thousand people waiting about two hours to vote, many having travelled from opposition-dominated neighbourhoods where polling places were closed. Of the dozens of others sites seen by the AP, two in the loyalist-heavy neighbourhood of El Valle had lines of approximately 200 to 400 people. All the others had at most a couple of dozen voters, and many had less than a half-dozen or were completely empty.
Dozens of Venezuelans are gathering early at voting centres in Caracas' Petare neighbourhood, saying they plan to cast ballots because they hope for improvements in their lives.
Hairdresser Luisa Marquez said she hoped to get a house as she waited with her daughter in a line outside a centre to vote Sunday for an all-powerful constitutional assembly that Maduro's opponents fear he'll use to replace Venezuela's democracy with a single-party authoritarian system.
``I hope things get better,'' said Marquez after acknowledging that Venezuelans are experiencing tough economic times.
The run-up to the vote has been marked by months of clashes between protesters and the government, and the Trump administration has imposed successive rounds of sanctions on high-ranking members of Maduro's administration, with the support of countries including Mexico, Colombia and Panama.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is asking for global acceptance as he casts an unusual pre-dawn vote for an all-powerful constitutional assembly that his opponents fear he'll use to replace the country's democracy with a single-party authoritarian system.
Accompanied by close advisers and state media, Maduro voted at 6:05 a.m. local time, far earlier and less publicly than in previous elections. The run-up to Sunday's vote has been marked by months of clashes between protesters and the government, including the fatal shooting of a 61-year-old nurse by men accused of being pro-government paramilitaries during a protest this month at a church a few hundred feet from the school where Maduro voted.
``We've stoically withstood the terrorist, criminal violence,'' Maduro said. ``Hopefully the world will respectfully extend its arms toward our country.''
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US Veep Talks With Venezuelan Opposition Leader
The White House says U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence has spoken with Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez about the political unrest wracking the South American nation.
A statement says Pence delivered a message Friday on behalf of President Donald Trump that the United States stands with the Venezuelan people.
It says Pence also repeated Trump's pledge to respond quickly with further economic actions if Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro goes through with elections Sunday to choose a national assembly to rewrite the constitution.
The statement says Pence also praised Lopez for his courage in defending democracy even while under house arrest. The opposition leader was recently free from prison and transferred to house arrest.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is paying homage to the late Hugo Chavez on what would have been his predecessor's 63rd birthday.
Maduro told supporters Friday that with his push to rewrite the nation's constitution, ``Chavez is more alive than ever.''
Sunday's election for a constituent assembly to overhaul the country's charter has drawn international outcry and opposition protests.
The constitution would replace the one crafted by Chavez in 1999 in a previous constituent assembly, considered one of his legacies.
Chavez installed the nation's socialist government and died in office in 2013.
Even some longtime government loyalists and Chavez supporters have denounced Maduro's plans.
So far few demonstrators are heeding opposition calls for a mass protest in Venezuela's capital against President Nicolas Maduro's controversial election Sunday for an assembly to rewrite the constitution.
While some barricades have been set up in opposition-friendly eastern Caracas, the large crowds seen during previous demonstrations that have drawn hundreds of thousands are largely absent.
Interior Minister Nestor Reverol announced Thursday that officials were prohibiting any protests through Tuesday.
Opposition leaders urged Venezuelans to demonstrate anyway in an event they billed as the ``taking of Caracas.''
Lawmaker Jose Manuel Olivares asked Venezuelans ``not to be victims of fear.''
Colombia says it will grant temporary legal status to more than 150,000 Venezuelans who have overstayed visas due to the deteriorating political and economic crisis in their home country.
Colombia Migration Director Christian Kruger said Friday the status will be good for up to two years and let recipients work and receive social security benefits.
Venezuelans must have entered Colombia legally on or before July 25 to qualify.
In recent years Colombia has received hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants, many of whom have Colombian roots.
The migrants are fleeing triple-digit inflation, food and medical shortages and a homicide rate that is among the world's highest. In recent months more than 100 people have died in civil unrest in Venezuela.
The new legal status does not provide aid to the thousands who entered illegally.
Venezuela's chief prosecutor is reporting at least 114 deaths in nearly four months of protests against President Nicolas Maduro's government.
Late Thursday the prosecutor's office released a list of 109 dead from violence related to demonstrations and street blockades across the country.
The office later reported at least five more deaths via Twitter, including a police officer slain Thursday afternoon in the town of Ejido, Merida state. The western state has been the scene of violent clashes between protesters and police.
The toll is expected to climb as authorities enforce a ban on protests ahead of a polarizing vote Sunday to begin the rewriting of Venezuela's constitution. Protesters say the election of a constitutional assembly will allow Maduro to eliminate democratic checks and balances and install an authoritarian single-party system.
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President Trump Levies New Sanctions Against Venezuela
By Michael Weissenstein
Caracas, Venezuela -- Opponents of President Nicolas Maduro at home and abroad tried again Wednesday to pressure the socialist leader into halting his plans to rewrite Venezuela's constitution.
The Trump administration announced sanctions on 13 current and former members of Maduro's administration, freezing their U.S. assets and barring Americans from doing business with them. The U.S. also joined with a dozen other regional governments in urging Maduro to suspend Sunday's election of a national assembly for rewriting the charter.'
Those moves came as a coalition of Venezuelan opposition groups organized a second national strike in a week. Highways were mostly empty and businesses shuttered across the country as millions of people observed the 48-hour strike and activists threw up roadblocks in many neighbourhoods to keep others from getting to work.
By late afternoon, clashes between police and protesters erupted at some roadblocks in Caracas, and the chief prosecutor's office reported at least one person killed. That increased the official count of dead in nearly four months of demonstrations to at least 98.
Venezuela was less than four days from a vote that would start the process of rewriting its constitution by electing members of a special assembly to reshape the charter. The opposition is boycotting the vote, saying election rules were rigged to guarantee Maduro a majority in the constitutional assembly.
Maduro did not address the nation Wednesday but state-run television was filled with scenes of his backers exhorting the public to go to the polls Sunday.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez called on Venezuelans to support the strike in his first direct public message since being moved from prison to house arrest this month. The 46-year-old former Caracas-area mayor, who was sentenced to 14 years in 2015 after being convicted of inciting violence during a previous spate of protests, also appealed to the military not to deploy for Sunday's election.
``We are on the brink of their trying to annihilate the republic that you swore to defend,'' Lopez said in a 15-minute video message. ``I ask you not to be accomplices in the annihilation of the republic.''
Three days of protests are planned leading up to Sunday's vote, starting with the strike and culminating Friday with a demonstration billed as a ``takeover of Caracas.''
``We have to do everything possible to halt the constitutional assembly,'' said Maria Medina, an office administrator who was waiting in line at a state-run bank that opened. ``The only solution is a change of government.''
Among those hit by the U.S. sanctions were Tibisay Lucena Ramirez, the president of the National Electoral Council and president of Venezuela's National Board of Elections; Elias Jose Jaua Milano, minister of education and head of the Presidential Commission for the National Constituent Assembly; Tarek William Saab Halabi, president of Venezuela's Republican Moral Council; and Maria Iris Varela Rangel, a member of Venezuela's Presidential Commission for the Constituent Assembly.
In addition, penalties will apply to several members of Venezuela's national guard, police and other security services, including Interior Minister Nestor Luis Reverol Torres, who was indicted last year by the U.S. Justice Department for his alleged role in an international cocaine distribution conspiracy.
The Trump administration has said it is considering further sanctions, including restrictions on Venezuelan oil imports, a potentially devastating blow to Venezuela's economy.
The U.S. also said it had determined that Venezuelan Vice-President Tareck El Aissami, hit with U.S. sanctions in February, had ``hundreds of millions of dollars'' in assets that have been frozen due to the sanctions. The U.S. has accused El Aissami of playing a major role in global drug trafficking, a charge he denies. El Aissami is the most senior Venezuelan official ever targeted by the U.S.
The flagship airline in neighbouring Colombia said it was suspending all flights to Venezuela, citing security concerns. Avianca joined a long list of air carriers that have suspended service to Venezuela as the country sinks further into economic and political chaos. June saw the last United Airlines departure from Caracas.
A top Cuban official said his country had no intention of trying to mediate a solution to Venezuela's crisis, rejecting the idea of what he called ``foreign meddling'' and voicing full support for Maduro, a key ideological and economic ally of the island's government.
``Those who from the outside try to give lessons on democracy and human rights while encouraging coup-mongering violence and terrorism should take their hands off that nation,'' Cuban Communist Party Second Secretary Jose Ramon Machado Ventura said at a ceremony marking the anniversary of a failed barracks uprising that is considered the beginning of Fidel Castro's revolution.
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Joshua Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.
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United States Urges Venezuela to Halt Charter Vote
The United States and 12 other regional nations are urging Venezuela's president to suspend the election of a national assembly to rewrite the country's constitution amid political unrest.
The 13 nations presented a statement at an Organization of American States meeting Wednesday calling the constitutional process being pushed by Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro a ``definitive dismantling'' of democratic institutions.
The statement expresses concern over what it says is a ``serious alteration of the democratic order, the worsening of the crisis and the increase of violence'' in Venezuela.
The statement was issued by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and the United States.
U.S. officials say the Trump administration is poised to hit Venezuela with new sanctions amid widespread unrest ahead of weekend elections that would lead to a rewrite of the country's constitution.
The officials said the sanctions to be announced by the White House later Wednesday would target senior current and former government and military officials as well as some linked to Venezuela's state oil company.
The officials were not authorized to discuss the sanctions publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The sanctions will include asset freezes and travel bans.
In a tweet, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said 13 people would be affected by the sanctions. Rubio has been a strong proponent of sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro's increasingly authoritarian government and its crackdown on the opposition.
__ Contributed by Matthew Lee in Washington.
The European Union's foreign policy chief is calling on Venezuelan authorities to de-escalate tensions ahead of Sunday's election of a constituent assembly tasked with overhauling the embattled nation's charter.
Federica Mogherini issued a statement Wednesday warning that the election ``risks further polarizing the country and heightening the risk of confrontation.''
Three days of protests are planned leading up to Sunday's vote, starting with a 48-hour general strike that began Wednesday and culminating Friday with a demonstration billed as a ``takeover of Caracas.''
Mogherini says the EU ``encourages and stands ready to support in every way possible the creation of a regional 'group of friends,' accepted by the government and the opposition, to help the endeavours of political actors in Venezuela to find a peaceful, democratic and inclusive solution to the crisis in the country.''
Cuba says it has no intention of trying to help mediate a solution to the political crisis rocking Venezuela. Instead it's voicing full support for the embattled government of President Nicolas Maduro, a key ideological and economic ally.
Speculation that Havana could play a role in potential international mediation had been sparked by a recent visit to the island by President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.
Cuban Communist Party Second Secretary Jose Ramon Machado Ventura says ``Cuba roundly rejects such insinuations and demands absolute respect for the sovereignty and self-determination'' of Venezuela.
In his words: ``Those who from the outside try to give lessons on democracy and human rights while encouraging coup-mongering violence and terrorism should take their hands off that nation.''
Machado Ventura adds that it is up to the Venezuelan people and Maduro's government to overcome their challenges ``without foreign meddling in their internal affairs.''
He spoke Wednesday at a ceremony marking the anniversary of a failed barracks uprising that is considered the beginning of Fidel Castro's revolution.
Venezuelan opposition leaders have called a two-day general strike beginning Wednesday to protest Maduro's plans to rewrite the country's constitution.
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has released his first direct message since his release on house arrest this month, calling on Venezuelans to support a 48-hour general strike against government plans to rewrite the constitution and appealing to the army not to crack down on protests.
In a 15-minute video recorded in his home and released overnight Wednesday, Lopez says President Nicolas Maduro's administration is seeking to annihilate democracy. He calls on Venezuelans ``to stop this with peaceful resistance and deep commitment to our efforts.''
He calls on the Venezuelan army not to deploy Sunday to protect the vote.
``We're on the brink of their trying to annihilate the republic that you swore to defend,'' he says. ``I ask you not to be accomplices in the annihilation of the republic.''
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