Venezuela clamps down on opposition politicians

Caracas (AFP) –


Venezuela's opposition was on Thursday weighing its response to the government's latest crackdown on its politicians, which critics warn will risk making the troubled country a dictatorship.

Overnight, the supreme court for the second time this week sentenced an opposition mayor to 15 months in prison for not preventing anti-government protests in his Carcas district.

And a powerful member of a new loyalist assembly installed last week said would-be candidates from the opposition wanting to contest regional elections in December would need "good conduct" permission from the body to take part.

The moves bolstered claims by the United States and major Latin American nations that President Nicolas Maduro was trashing democracy and ruling through a "dictatorship."

On Wednesday, the United States extended sanctions it had already imposed on Maduro to members of the new Constituent Assembly, which was elected last month amid allegations of fraud and deadly protests.

Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico and other nations in the Americas have said they do not recognize the new assembly, which also sacked a critical attorney general among other steps to quash dissent.

Venezuela has lodged protests with 11 embassies over the international condemnation, and railed against the United States for not respecting "any basic principle of international law."

- Tensions -

The developments fuelled tensions that have been flaring in Venezuela for the past four months, resulting in nearly 130 deaths during protests and increasing isolation for Maduro and his government.

The supreme court's sentencing of the opposition mayor of the Hatillo district in Caracas, David Smolansky, and a bar on him holding public office followed identical punishment it handed down to the mayor of the Chacao district, Ramon Muchacho.

Smolanksy posted a video online in which he called for protests against his jailing "in all the streets" of his municipality. But early Thursday there was little response, beyond a barricade of trash across a road.

The opposition coalition, a grouping of around 30 disparate parties called the Democratic Unity Roundtable, has been struggling about what to do to keep up pressure on Maduro, who it wants to see ousted through early elections.

On Wednesday, after much debate, the coalition said it would contest overdue regional elections in Venezuela's 23 states on December 10, with the aim of holding Maduro to the electoral calendar, which also sees the next presidential election in October 2018.

Polls suggest the opposition would win most of the states, replicating its landslide 2015 victory in taking control of the legislature, the National Assembly.

Maduro has installed the new Constituent Assembly with powers over all branches of government, including the National Assembly.

- US against Venezuelan 'tyranny' -

Maduro and his government are deeply unpopular, as the country's 30 million citizens suffer under a long economic crisis that has resulted in shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation -- a harsh reality for an oil-rich country that used to be one of the wealthiest in Latin America.

One of the Constituent Assembly's most powerful members, Diosdado Cabello, argued for another obstacle for the opposition before it could take part in the regional elections.

He said they should apply for "certificates of good conduct" from the assembly attesting that they would prevent any violence in the streets.

The election of the new assembly and its campaign against the opposition has drawn fire from Washington.

"President Maduro swore in this illegitimate Constituent Assembly to further entrench his dictatorship, and continues to tighten his grip on the country," US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement announcing the latest sanctions.

"This regime's disregard for the will of the Venezuelan people is unacceptable, and the United States will stand with them in opposition to tyranny until Venezuela is restored to a peaceful and prosperous democracy."

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza shot back on state television that the US was "making a fool of itself in front of the world."

"Venezuela can't be sanctioned for anything, nor by anybody," he said.

Although broadly criticized, Venezuela is not entirely isolated internationally.

It can count on the support of Russia and China -- which have granted tens of billions of dollars in loans to Venezuela -- as well as leftist allies Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, and small Caribbean nations to which it gives cheap oil.