Venezuela entered the second day of a nationwide mass strike Thursday, with millions expected to join a last-ditch attempt to pressure President Nicolas Maduro into scrapping plans for a new congress.
But U.S. sanctions against 13 top Venezuelan officials announced Wednesday might offer the best chance of breaking the deadlock in the country’s political crisis, analysts say, by undermining crucial support for the government among its elite backers.
“These sanctions undermine the patronage system among top government and military officials,” Diego Moya-Ocampos, senior analyst for the Americas at IHS Country Risk, told VICE News.
“If you’re on the U.S. blacklist, you become an international pariah,” he said. “It’s the only thing that top government and military officials really do fear.”
The individuals targeted by the U.S. Treasury for undermining democracy include the country’s army and police chiefs, the national director of elections, and an executive of the state oil company.
Venezuela has been mired in crisis for months, amid broad opposition to Maduro’s leadership and deepening economic misery. Anti-government protests have escalated in recent days, ahead of Maduro’s plans to hold a vote Sunday to establish a powerful new legislative body — the National Constituent Assembly — that opponents fear will consolidate the country’s slide towards dictatorship. The election process for the new body virtually guarantees that most of its members will represent the government’s interests, and the assembly is widely expected to attempt to dissolve the existing, opposition-dominated parliament.
Clashes broke out around the country on the first day of the 48-hour mass strike Wednesday, with a 30-year-old man killed during a protest in Merida state, authorities said. More than 100 people have been killed in the violence so far.
But despite the widespread opposition to Maduro’s plans, the unpopular Socialist president has been able to hold onto power, largely due to the backing of the powerful military. Moya-Ocampos said that while the sanctions were unlikely to stop the vote being held Sunday, they would create more of an opening for a negotiated solution, creating a disincentive for the government’s key supporters among the elite to continue supporting Maduro, and making them more open to dialogue.
The U.S. has warned that individual sanctions are just the beginning, with potential restrictions targeting Venezuela’s oil sector – the regime’s economic lifeline – under consideration. “Anything that targets the oil sector would be a game-changer,” said Moya-Ocampos.
But on the surface, at least, Maduro and his allies have brushed off the U.S move with bravado. At a televised rally Wednesday night, Maduro presented some of the sanctioned officials with replicas of a sword belonging to revolutionary hero Simón Bolivar.
“Congratulations for these imperialist sanctions,” he said. “What makes the imperialists of the United States think they are the world government?”
Maria Iris Varela, a key figure in efforts to establish the National Constituent Assembly who was one of those sanctioned, was less lofty in her response.
“This is my response to the gringos, like Chavez told them, ‘Go to hell, you piece of shit Yankees,’” she wrote, in a tweet picturing her flipping the bird.