Venezuela Spurns Trump Threats; Still Plans Constitution Changes

Image: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores raise their fists during a military parade
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores raise their fists during the country's Independence Day parade in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, July 5, 2017. Ariana Cubillos / AP

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By Suzanne Gamboa

WASHINGTON -- Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro’s administration is promising to go ahead with plans for a rewrite of his country’s constitution despite threats of economic sanctions from the Trump administration.

Maduro has plans to elect a "constituent assembly" on July 30 whose task would be to change Venezuela’s constitution. More than 7 million Venezuelans in the country and around the globe rejected Maduro’s plan in a non-binding plebiscite held last Sunday.

President Donald Trump late Monday threatened economic sanctions if Maduro did not drop the plans. He called Maduro a "bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator" in a statement and said last weekend's opposition vote was "strong and courageous."

“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles. If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on June 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions,” Trump said in the statement.

But on Tuesday, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada said on state television that Maduro is going forward with its plan. He also said Maduro has asked him to reconsider the country’s relationship with the U.S.

“The constitutional assembly is happening,” Moncada said, according to The Associated Press.

In a call with reporters later Tuesday, a senior administration official declined to "preview" the potential sanctions, but said "all options are on the table."

The U.S. is a major oil market for Venezula’s oil exports that drive its economy. The administration already has imposed travel bans and frozen the assets of high-ranking Venezuelan officials.

The senior administration officials, who spoke in the White House conference only on condition his name not be used, said the administration continues to demand the Venezuelan government release Joshua Holt on humanitarian grounds. Holt has been imprisoned since his June 30 arrest on weapons charges that his attorney says are based on shaky evidence.

The administration official said Trump is very concerned about Holt "but our decisions on the foreign policy front, including sanctions ... have not been effected directly by Mr. Holt's case."

The official would not say when the administration will announce its sanctions but said he would not be surprised if something is done before July 30. He also said the U.S. is working with other countries to pressure Maduro to drop his

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s opposition forces have called for a 24-hour national strike on Thursday to pressure Maduro against his plan. Venezuela is wracked by shortages of food and other basic necessities and soaring inflation that have created a backlash and relentless, sometimes deadly, protests against Maduro’s administration.

Opponents see Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution as another power grab, one that follows the nullification of Venezuela’s Congress by the Maduro-friendly Venezuela Supreme Court.

This report contains material from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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