CARACAS, Venezuela — The Trump administration on Monday imposed sanctions on President Nicolás Maduro, after an election that critics called a tipping point toward dictatorship. But even with international pressure building and Venezuela’s economy collapsing, beleaguered opposition activists here were facing a stark new challenge.
How could they confront a socialist machine that now controls all branches of government?
Citing Maduro’s “outrageous seizure of absolute power,” the U.S. government froze any American assets he may have and banned Americans from doing business with him. The move came after Maduro heralded the Sunday vote creating a new super-congress made up entirely of government backers. The newly cast legislators included his wife and son. The body will have sweeping powers to rewrite the constitution and redraw Venezuela’s governing system.
“Maduro is not just a bad leader,” said President Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. “He is now a dictator.”
Despite the tough talk from the White House, the sanctions fell short of the crippling pressure many observers were expecting. Maduro swiftly dismissed the measures, saying on television that they were imposed because he didn’t obey the “North American empire.” He added: “Impose all the sanctions that you want, but I’m a free president.”
Potentially more-sweeping measures — including the targeting of Venezuela’s all-important oil industry — are still on the table. But the opposition here is running out of time to turn the tide, and is now facing new and significant threats.
The election was boycotted by the opposition, and many Venezuelans mocked the government’s contention that more than 40 percent of voters took part. Under Maduro’s mentor, the late leftist leader Hugo Chávez, many Venezuelans thought national election results were generally credible, although candidates complained that he used state resources to gain an edge. But opposition activists called Sunday’s vote a turning point, claiming that only about 12 percent of Venezuelans turned out, in what they called a historic rejection of Maduro and his plans.
Luisa Ortega Díaz, Venezuela’s attorney general, who broke with the government in March, on Monday declared the vote fraudulent. She suggested that Maduro and his inner circle, including a vice president accused by the U.S. government of narco-trafficking, would now seek to use the new assembly to monopolize money and power.
“How will we control the public budget now? How will we know how much and in what things money is being invested? How amazing for them!” she said.
“This is not the project Hugo Chávez wanted for the country,” she continued. “Far from it.”
Maduro has said he proposed the assembly to bring peace to the streets after four months of often-violent demonstrations protesting the dire state of the economy and growing authoritarianism. Opponents said he skewed the system for choosing candidates to ensure control of the new body.
On Thursday, those chosen for the new Constituent Assembly are set to replace the democratically elected members of the nation’s legislature, which is dominated by the opposition. Some opposition lawmakers defiantly went to the National Assembly building on Monday, vowing to keep carrying out their duties. It foreshadowed a potentially dramatic standoff.
“Nothing and nobody will prevent us from fulfilling the mandate that the people have given us,” opposition lawmaker Delsa Solórzano said in a video she shot outside the assembly building Monday morning. “That’s why an important number of lawmakers came today, to protect our space and to protect the will of the people.”
U.S. officials would not say whether Maduro has any U.S. assets. But under the sanctions, he is cut off from accessing the U.S. financial system, as well as most transactions in dollars, since nearly all dollar-denominated transactions must clear through an American bank at some point. Moreover, non-U. S. banks have become very concerned about doing business with anyone on an American sanctions list.
“I think today’s sanction was more of a symbol,” said Asdrúbal Oliveros, director of the Caracas-based Ecoanalítica consulting firm. “I don’t think Maduro has properties in the U.S. What’s relevant is that he’s now in a list with the head of North Korea and Syria. You’re a dictator, that’s why you’re there. That is the message.”
In addition to the U.S. reaction, Latin American nations from Argentina to Panama to Brazil have also declared the vote illegitimate, with regional foreign ministers set to meet in Peru next week to review the crisis.
Yet the larger question is whether the domestic opposition can sustain the pressure it has brought to bear on Maduro’s administration. Simply put, with more than 100 dead and thousands detained in the demonstrations, some people are tired, and even more are scared.
Opposition leaders are facing their own test of public confidence after Sunday’s vote.
“Today I feel crushed, but not because of the results, because we knew that the government would cheat,” said Victoria Daboin, a 25-year-old who has been protesting since April. “I feel depressed because today everything looks normal, as if nothing had happened. The streets are empty and people went to work as if nothing ever happened. I personally expected more forceful actions from opposition leaders.”
Many credit the opposition with bravely challenging a repressive regime. But at a time when the socialist government is signaling a more radical stage of rule, some Venezuelans express concern that no single opposition leader has emerged as Maduro’s obvious challenger.
A top contender, opposition leader Leopoldo López, remains under house arrest and sidelined from public activities.In recent days, the opposition has seemed disorganized, caught flat-footed by a government announcement banning protests through Tuesday.
“Where’s the leader who has mobilized people in the slums because they believe in him?” said Luis Vicente León, director of the Caracas-based pollster Datanálisis. “People in the slums are scared, but when you have a leader you love, that barrier can be overcome. That leader doesn’t exist. And there’s internal divisions within the coalition on how to confront this situation now.”
Analysts say the established opposition here needs to escape the orbit of its past. During the 1980s and 1990s, it was accused of ignoring the poor. Many also criticized it for failing to unite.
Now that polls show Venezuelans desperate for change, the parties have more or less united in the face of the government’s growing repression and have made inroads with poorer voters. Still, they amount to factions with varying politics and competing loyalties.
For the opposition, there appears, as of yet, to be no agreement on which tactic is best going forward.
And virtually all options harbor risks.
Some dissident voices here are pressing the opposition to accelerate its move to set up what is essentially a parallel government.
“We won’t do anything that is outside the constitution; we don’t have the constitutional powers to name a new president,” said Solórzano, the opposition lawmaker. “How are we going to combat illegality with more illegality? I understand people’s desperation; all of us are doing worse than ever. But we all have to keep going — it’s everyone’s responsibility, not just leaders.”
On July 16, the opposition held an informal referendum in which, it reported, 7.6 million people rejected the creation of the Constituent Assembly. Following that vote, the opposition announced a move to create its own “government of national unity.”
But the opposition’s most substantial move in that direction — the selection of magistrates to challenge the authority of the current pro-government Supreme Court — has resulted in three judges being arrested and several others going into hiding.
Some argue that a move to install a parallel government could encourage stronger international action that would diplomatically isolate Maduro. But others say that such a move could polarize the nation and trigger a government crackdown that would lead to a larger wave of politically motivated arrests.
There is also a risk that a more violent faction of the opposition will grow, gradually creating a low-grade conflict. Masked young people have already been seeking to take the fight to the government with rocks and molotov cocktails. And on Sunday, the violence escalated, with an explosive device set by a demonstrator blowing up as a motorcade of government troops passed. Another protester was photographed shooting a gun.
Via Twitter, Venezuelan user @bienlechuga echoed the frustrations of many government opponents who are calling for more-radical action.
“War will not bring us the best result, but it could put us in a better position in this game,” the user wrote.
Long reported from Washington. Rachelle Krygier and Mariana Zuñiga in Caracas and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.