Washington blasts Venezuela ‘snap’ elections, calls for drug-trafficking investigation

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro shows his finger stained in ink after casting his ballot during the ruling party’s primaries in Caracas, Venezuela, June 28, 2015.
Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro shows his finger stained in ink after casting his ballot during the ruling party’s primaries in Caracas, Venezuela, June 28, 2015. AP

Washington continued its political assault on Venezuela Wednesday, condemning the South American country’s decision to call snap presidential elections and urging the Department of Justice to open up a drug-trafficking investigation into senior officials in the Nicolás Maduro administration.

In a statement Wednesday, the U.S. State Department forcefully rejected Venezuela’s decision to call presidential elections before Apr. 30, saying that the accelerated timeline means the process will “neither be free nor fair.”

Spokesperson Heather Nauert said the “snap” vote will only deepen ongoing tensions and “would not reflect the will of the Venezuelan people, and would be seen as undemocratic and illegitimate in the eyes of the international community.”

On Tuesday, Venezuela’s National Constitutional Assembly, which the United States and Venezuela’s opposition consider illegitimate, announced that elections would be held in the first four months of the year, but it will be up to the National Electoral Council to set a specific date. Traditionally, presidential elections are held in December.

A rushed voting process will likely favor the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, which has been rallying around the reelection of Maduro.

The opposition, by comparison, has no clear front-runner and has been reeling after a series of defeats in municipal and regional elections. Opposition parties were expected to announce in coming days a primary strategy that might allow them to present a unified front and a single candidate, but that’s far from certain.

Maduro’s approval ratings are near 30 percent amid a spiraling economic and social crisis that has many Venezuelans going hungry and struggling to find basic goods. But analysts and polls suggest that — in the face of a divided and demoralized opposition — Maduro could clench another six-year term.

Read More: Poll gives Maduro clear lead in 2018 race

“A free, fair, transparent electoral process open to credible international observation is essential to the restoration of a democratic constitutional order in Venezuela,” Nauert said.

The Washington reproach came the same day U.S. lawmakers urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate long-simmering allegations that senior Venezuelan officials are involved in drug trafficking.

In a letter sent Wednesday, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said they were “concerned about the growing connections between members of the Maduro regime and established narco-trafficking organizations.”

In 2016, Gen. Nestor Reverol, Venezuela’s Minister of Interior, was indicted by a U.S. district court for participating in conspiracy to traffic cocaine. In addition, last year, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck el-Aissami for drug trafficking. And in December, two nephews of Maduro’s wife were convicted in U.S. federal court of planning to smuggle Colombian cocaine into the United States.

Read More: A tale of two trials - ‘Narco nephews’ and Josh Holt

“We request the U.S. Department of Justice to immediately pursue an investigation into the credible allegations of drug trafficking and other illicit activities by senior Venezuelan government officials in order to better understand the nexus between criminal actors and members of Maduro’s inner circle,” the senators wrote.

Venezuela has long accused Washington of using illegal sanctions and the threat of criminal prosecution to upend a socialist administration that has won a string of increasingly contested elections.

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