U.S. could apply new sanctions after Maduro announcement of constitutional assembly

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday criticized a call by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to hold a constitutional assembly, describing it as a crude maneuver to avoid elections and hinting that Washington could apply new individual sanctions against Maduro’s regime.

Michael Fitzpatrick, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, also said the process of freezing assets belonging to Venezuela’s vice president, Tareck El Aissami — whom the U.S. blacklisted in January as a major player in drug trafficking operations — has not yet been completed.

Although he said he did not have an exact amount, Fitzpatrick said the U.S. been able to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars because the money is linked to El Aissami and his front man, Samark Lopez Bello.

Fitzpatrick, who made his remarks in a teleconference with reporters, said Maduro’s announcement late Monday also could lead to new sanctions being imposed.

“There are others [measures of this type] that are possible. I’m not going to speak to them at this time. [But] again, we will be talking with other members in other countries in the region as well about coordinated sanctions, to the extent possible,” Fitzpatrick said.

“The actions that were taken yesterday may well give us new reasons for considering additional individualized sanctions under the Venezuela Democracy Act of 2014,” he warned.

Pressured by growing social discontent, Maduro announced on Monday night that he intended to convene a national assembly to rewrite the constitution and defend the nation from what he called a coup d’état.

But from the few details that Maduro provided in his announcement, members of that group will not be chosen through free and open elections, Fitzpatrick said.

“President Maduro spoke last night of selecting people from different ... strata of society,” he said “He’s stacking the deck, and they’re trying to preordain the outcome of this.”

From the U.S. government’s perspective, Maduro launched this measure in an attempt to prevent the Venezuelan population from speaking at the polls after suspending regional elections that were to be held in 2016 and the municipal elections to be held this year.

“So therefore we view it as a step backwards,” he said.

Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter: @DelgadoAntonioM

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