The United States imposed economic sanctions Monday on Venezuela for what it said was the country’s “fraudulent” re-election of President Nicolas Maduro to a second six-year term.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order that banned Americans from oil transactions with Venezuela, once one of the world’s top oil producers.
A senior White House official told reporters “today’s executive order closes another avenue for corruption that we have observed being used. It denies corrupt Venezuelan officials the ability to improperly value and sell off public assets in return for kickbacks.”
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Maduro’s re-election “an attack on constitutional order and an affront to Venezuela’s tradition of democracy. Until the Maduro regime restores a democratic path in Venezuela through free, fair and transparent elections, the government faces isolation from the international community.”
Pompeo declared, “The United States stands with democratic nations in support of the Venezuelan people and will take swift economic and diplomatic actions to support the restoration of their democracy.”
Maduro hailed his re-election as a “historic record” after officials said he won 68 percent of the vote, far ahead of the 21 percent won by his closest rival, ex-army officer Henri Falcon. But with months of economic turmoil in Venezuela, marked by food and medicine shortages, and violent unrest, a historic 52 percent of voters abstained from voting, and the Democratic Unity Roundtable opposition boycotted the election as a “farce.”
Maduro faced growing international protests about the vote, with Argentina, Brazil and Canada all recalling their ambassadors from Caracas.
Pompeo said, “Sunday’s process was choreographed by a regime too unpopular and afraid of its own people to risk free elections and open competition. It stacked the Venezuelan courts and National Electoral Council with biased members aligned with the regime. It silenced dissenting voices. It banned major opposition parties and leaders from participating.”
The top U.S. diplomat said as of a week ago, “more than 338 political prisoners remained jailed, more than in all other countries in the hemisphere combined.”
He said the Maduro regime “stifled the free press. State sources dominated media coverage, unfairly favoring the incumbent. Most contemptible of all, the regime selectively parceled out food to manipulate the votes of hungry Venezuelans.”
Maduro, a 55-year-old former bus driver, was expected to win despite a deepening crisis that has made food scarce and inflation soar as oil production plummets.
Former state governor Falcon was Maduro’s main challenger, but his chances were hurt by the presence of a second anti-Maduro candidate in the race, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci.
“We do not recognize this electoral process as valid, as true,” Falcon said Sunday.”For us, there were no elections.We have to have new elections in Venezuela.”
Bertucci also called for a new vote.
Falcon condemned the government’s placement of red tents near polling stations around the country, where Venezuelans were asked to scan their “fatherland cards” after voting in the hope of receiving a prize.The state-issued cards are used to receive benefits, including food boxes. Critics said the scheme amounted to vote-buying.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized the election as a “sham, neither free nor fair.”
“The illegitimate result of this fake process is a further blow to the proud democratic tradition of Venezuela,” Pence said in a statement Monday. “America stands against dictatorship and with the people of Venezuela. The Maduro regime must allow humanitarian aid into Venezuela and must allow its people to be heard.”
Maduro’s victory could trigger more sanctions and more censure from the European Union and Latin America.
Maduro, the self-described “son” of Hugo Chavez, said on Saturday that he is battling a U.S. “imperialist” plot to crush socialism and take over the OPEC nation’s oil wealth.
On Friday, the Trump administration added a key Maduro ally to a growing list of top officials targeted by financial sanctions, accusing socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello of drug trafficking and embezzlement.
Maduro’s opponents said the leftist leader has destroyed Venezuela’s once-wealthy economy and ruthlessly crushed dissent. Polls also show Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for their mounting troubles.
More than 1 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years for a better life abroad, while those staying behind wait in line for hours to buy subsidized food and withdraw cash that is almost impossible to find.
VOA’s Spanish Service contributed.