Washington (AFP) - The United States on Thursday slapped more sanctions against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government, targeting 10 officials it said engaged in election irregularities to perpetuate what Washington called a dictatorial regime.
The new sanctions come as EU member states prepare to impose an arms embargo on Venezuela, whose leftist government has sought to tighten its grip on power amid a prolonged economic and political crisis that led to street clashes and 125 dead from April to July.
Things are so dire in oil-rich Venezuela that people line up to buy not just food and medicine but basics like soap and toilet paper. Maduro calls the crisis a plot contrived by rich conservative business people backed by the government of President Donald Trump.
The new sanctions came in response to October 15 state elections in which pro-Maduro candidates unexpectedly won 18 of 23 gubernatorial seats.
The US Treasury Department said irregularities "strongly suggest fraud" was used to elect Maduro candidates.
For instance, one of the people sanctioned, Sandra Oblitas Ruzza, vice president of the National Electoral Council, announced the relocation of polling stations just days before the voting, the US said.
So people showed up where they thought they could vote, but could not, it added.
"As the Venezuelan government continues to disregard the will of its people, our message remains clear: the United States will not stand aside while the Maduro regime continues to destroy democratic order and prosperity in Venezuela," US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
He said the US will continue to go after Venezuelan officials who are complicit in efforts to undermine democracy, violate human rights, and act corruptly "unless they break from Maduro’s dictatorial regime."
Venezuela reacted angrily to the new sanctions, with Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza saying on Twitter they were designed to trigger violence.
"They aim to once again generate destabilization and violence in our country," he said, referring to the street protests this year. He dismissed the new punishment as "imperialist, absurd and desperate."
In those demonstrations the Venezuelan opposition was hoping to force Maduro from power so new elections can be held.
- Censorship and corruption -
The two sides announced Thursday they will resume talks on the political crisis next week in the Dominican Republic, specifically on how to guarantee that presidential elections scheduled for 2018 will be free and fair. Facilitators from the United Nations, the Vatican and selected countries will be present.
The sanctions named government ministers and members of Venezuela's National Electoral Council and the new, all powerful Constituent Assembly, which has replaced congress, even taking over its building, chamber and seats, can rewrite laws as it sees fit and is made up solely of Maduro loyalists.
The Treasury Department said the October elections were held amid censorship, abuse of state media and corruption extending to the distribution of food.
Also among those designated under the new US sanctions was Elvis Eduardo Hidrobo Amoroso, second vice president of the Constituent Assembly, which Washington deems illegitimate.
Culture Minister and former Information Minister Ernesto Emilio Villegas Poljak, the head of Venezuela’s state telephone utility Manuel Angel Fernandez Melendez, Urban Agriculture Minister Freddy Alirio Bernal Rosales and current ambassador to Italy Julian Isaias Rodriguez Diaz were named as well.
Rodriguez Diaz, for instance, who used to be second vice president of the Constituent Assembly, signed a decree forcing newly-elected governors to take the oath of office before that body, the US statement said.
The sanctions effectively freeze those named out of much of the global banking system, requiring most international banks not to process transactions on their behalf, and block their access to any assets under US jurisdiction.
Sanctions imposed by Trump's administration in August banned US trade in any new bonds issued by the Venezuelan government or state oil company PDVSA -- a needed step in any restructuring of the oil-rich country's debt.
The embattled government in Caracas announced last week it was calling a meeting of creditors for November 13 to try to restructure its foreign debt, estimated at $150 billion.
The move came the same day the International Monetary Fund said it was sanctioning the government for failing to provide economic data, as all IMF member states are required to do.
There are growing fears Venezuela might default on its huge $150 billion debt. Creditors are to meet Friday in New York to discuss the state oil company PDVSA's failure to make a bond payment.