The regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was hit by US sanctions and a 48-hour opposition-led nationwide strike on Wednesday, both aimed at thwarting his controversial plans to elect a new body to rewrite the constitution.
The bloodshed in the oil-rich but crisis-hit country resumed when a 30-year-old man died in a protest held during the strike, adding to a nationwide death toll of more than 100 since April.
In Washington, the US Treasury unveiled a list of 13 current and former officials, including the interior minister, senior military brass, the president of the electoral council, and the finance chief of state oil company PDVSA, whose US assets would be frozen.
The announcement came as Venezuela\’s opposition launched its nationwide stoppage as part of a campaign to halt Sunday\’s vote and, more broadly, force Maduro from office through early elections.
The vote, which Maduro has vowed will go ahead as planned, is to choose the 545 members of a "Constituent Assembly" to rival the opposition-held National Assembly and to redo the constitution.
But in a country suffering from widespread shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation, protesters are showing their discontent with Maduro\’s leadership.
"No more dictatorship!" read signs on road barricades in eastern Caracas.
The left-wing Maduro has nevertheless remained defiant, saying the threat by US President Donald Trump — now realized — to impose sanctions made him more determined than ever to forge on with his plan.
Maduro accuses the US of fomenting the unrest against him and his government, with the help of the conservative opposition.
The Venezuelan military has declared its loyalty to him.
But some 70 percent of Venezuelans are opposed to the Constituent Assembly, according to polling firm Datanalisis.
The hardening political struggle has deepened fears that months of street violence could worsen.
The opposition has planned another major demonstration in the capital on Friday.
Thousands of Venezuelans loaded with heavy bags have crossed the border into Colombia this week, fleeing the unrest.
"The elections are on Sunday and we really don\’t know what will happen," said one, Maria de los Angeles Pichardo, who left with her husband and son. "To be safe, we prefer to cross."
Ordinary Venezuelans remaining in their country are faced with severe shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies. Many believe ousting Maduro is their only hope for survival.
"Every time we\’re worse off, with long lines and shortages. I think I\’ll strike for 48 hours," said one Caracas resident, Maria Auxiliadora.
Prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez made a direct appeal to the military early Wednesday to withdraw its support from Maduro\’s plan, which he called a "constitutional fraud" aimed at eliminating democratic rule.
In announcing the US sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said America was "standing by the Venezuelan people in their quest to restore their country to a full and prosperous democracy."
He warned that anybody elected to the Constituent Assembly could also be slapped with US sanctions.
Thirteen countries in the 35-member Organization of American States, a regional political bloc, urged Maduro to suspend Sunday\’s election.
Nations including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, the United States and Canada said the vote amounted to a "dismantling of democratic institutionality."
Venezuela\’s opposition, bolstered by an unofficial vote on July 16 that saw a third of the electorate reject Maduro\’s plan, has called for a boycott of Sunday\’s vote.
The president\’s attorney general, Luisa Ortega, has also broken ranks with the government over the issue and become a vociferous opponent.
At the same time, Maduro\’s administration is being squeezed by a long-running economic crisis.
The oil export-dependent economy will shrink 12 percent this year, after a contraction of 18 percent last year, according to the latest forecast from the International Monetary Fund.
Inflation is projected to top 720 percent.
Venezuela\’s currency reserves have dwindled to under $10 billion as the government keeps up debt repayments at the expense of imports to stave off a crippling default.
The opposition-led National Assembly, meanwhile, has challenged the government by appointing 33 supreme court judges to rival ones loyal to Maduro.
Three of the "shadow" judges have been arrested in the past few days by Venezuelan intelligence officials.
Adding to Venezuela\’s isolation, a major Latin American airline, Avianca of Colombia said it would stop flights to and from Venezuela in mid-August.
Several other airlines have previously announced flight suspensions as currency controls imposed by Maduro\’s government have kept them from recovering costs or making a profit.