Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro branded the sanctions as "insolent," as pressure piled up on him abroad and at home over his plan to elect a new body to rewrite the constitution.

Demonstrators run away at a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela. July 26, 2017.
Demonstrators run away at a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela. July 26, 2017.

The government 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 via a "Constituent Assembly."

Washington imposed sanctions on 13 senior officials of Venezuela's government, military and state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA). The US assets of interior minister, heads of the national police, army and national guard, the president of the electoral council, and the finance chief of PDVSA.

Maduro branded the sanctions as "insolent," as pressure piled up on him abroad and at home over his government's plan to hold the vote on constitutional changes.

The Trump administration is keeping all options on the table, including possible sanctions on Venezuela's oil sector, if Maduro goes ahead with plans to create a controversial new congress, a US official said on Wednesday.

Secretary of Treasury 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.

The vote, which Maduro has vowed will be held on July 30, is to choose the 545 members of the "Constituent Assembly" to rival the opposition-held National Assembly and to redo the constitution.

The US 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 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 the vote. The opposition has planned another major demonstration in the capital on Friday.

A fatiguing momentum?

The opposition says a 30-year-old man was killed in Western Merida state during an anti-government strike.

"No more dictatorship!" read signs on road barricades in eastern Caracas.

People gathered from dawn across Venezuela to block roads with rubbish, stones and tape, while many stores remained shut. Some areas came to a standstill, with streets deserted.

In a country suffering from widespread shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation, protesters are showing their discontent with Maduro's leadership.

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.

"It's the only way to show we are not with Maduro. They are few, but they have the weapons and the money," decorator Cletsi Xavier, 45, said, helping block the entrance to a freeway in upscale east Caracas with rope and iron metal sheets.

State enterprises, including PDVSA, stayed open and some working-class neighbourhoods were still buzzing with activity.

Overall, fewer people appeared to be heeding the shutdown than the millions who participated in a 24-hour strike last week when five people died in clashes.

In various places, National Guard troops fired tear gas at masked youths throwing rocks, witnesses said.

Maduro defiant

Maduro called the US punishment "illegal, insolent and unprecedented."

"Who do these imperialists in the United States think they are? The government of the world?" he said in a speech.

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 street violence that has erupted in Venezuela during anti-Maduro protests over the past four months could worsen.

Already more than 100 people have died.

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 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.

A demonstrator throws a tear canister gas a rally during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela. July 26, 2017. (Reuters)
A demonstrator throws a tear canister gas a rally during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela. July 26, 2017. (Reuters)

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.

The president's attorney general, Luisa Ortega, has also broken ranks with the government over the issue and become a vociferous opponent.

The 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.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies