Lawmakers slam Venezuelan leader over 'illegal' election

Lawmakers slam Venezuelan leader over 'illegal' election
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Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle denounced Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Monday for holding an election that many have decried as fraudulent.

Maduro's government held the election Sunday to select a National Constitutional Assembly, a move to strip the country's opposition-led parliament of its powers.

The Trump administration last week announced sanctions against 13 Maduro regime officials, and threatened further sanctions if the election were held.

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Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) in a tweet called the election an "illegal attempt" to rewrite Venezuela's constitution.

Diaz-Balart told The Hill last week that the Trump administration "has different options on the table" to ratchet up sanctions against the country.

"I have no doubt that if in fact the situation in Venezuela continues the way it is, that you're going to see a dramatic step up in those sanctions," he said.

“With yesterday’s sham constituent assembly election, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro took one of the final steps in making his country a full-blown dictatorship," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Members put out calls to the administration to increase sanctions on Maduro, including sanctions on the country's oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement "the United States must take more definitive action."

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"[The] U.S. should continue sanctioning individuals in Maduro’s inner circle but should also expand sanctions against Venezuela’s oil sector and PDVSA who is used by the regime to carryout human rights abuses and incite violence," said Ros-Lehtinen.

A senior administration official speaking on background last week told reporters the United States would "take economic action" if the election went ahead, but stopped short of saying whether Venezuela's oil industry would be targeted.

Oil has largely become the only source of foreign reserves for Venezuela. With the country's economy in a tailspin, some experts have expressed concern that an oil embargo could further intensify an already-critical humanitarian crisis.

Nine Democratic lawmakers — Reps. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), Ro Khanna (Calif.), Mark PocanMark William PocanStudents with disabilities could lose with COVID-19 stimulus package Overnight Defense: 'Tens of thousands' of National Guard troops could be activated for coronavirus response | Hospital ships could take week to deploy | Trump says military to help Americans stuck in Peru Democrats introduce bill to send coronavirus tests to US troops in Middle East MORE (Wis.), Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), Ruben Gallego (Ariz.), James P. McGovern (Mass.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Hank Johnson (Ga.) and Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.) — wrote Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday, asking him to avoid oil sanctions.

Oil sanctions, argued the lawmakers, would risk "armed internal conflict [that] would undoubtedly provoke an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and would also likely lead to major disruptions in oil production."

Sunday's election in Venezuela was followed by intensified street protests and violence, after more than two months of clashes between opposition protesters and security forces.

The United States and its regional allies did not recognize the results of the election, which was closed to opponents of Maduro.

"I welcome the decision by the White House not to recognize the results of these sham elections and I commend Mexico, Colombia and Panama for agreeing not to recognize the results either," said Ros-Lehtinen.

The Trump administration has not yet announced its sanctions package, or whether it will include an oil embargo, but U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley tweeted Monday, "Maduro’s sham election is another step toward dictatorship. We won't accept an illegit govt. The Venezuelan ppl & democracy will prevail."

The Constitutional Assembly is tasked with rewriting the Venezuelan constitution, already heavily altered since former President Hugo Chávez took power in 1998.

One of the major changes pushed forward by Chávez was to turn the country's parliament into a unicameral national assembly in hopes of exercising greater control on the body from the executive branch.

But after elections in 2015, the opposition took control of the assembly, and a battle began to strip its power, first through the Maduro-controlled supreme court and now through the constitutional assembly.

"This calamity not only calls for the United States to continue seeking policy changes that apply more pressure over Maduro and his cronies without further hurting their victims, it calls for collective and decisive action," said Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHillicon Valley: Facebook launches portal for coronavirus information | EU sees spike in Russian misinformation on outbreak | Senate Dem bill would encourage mail-in voting | Lawmakers question safety of Google virus website Democratic senators press Google over privacy of coronavirus screening site Menendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees MORE (D-N.J.) in a statement.