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USA sanctions top Venezuelan officials as general strike paralyzes country

28 July 2017

"We demand the executive branch abandon its intention to impose a new constitution", said the group, which is scorned by government supporters for its central role in a short-lived 2002 coup against Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez. Overall, fewer people appeared to be heeding the shutdown than the millions who participated in a 24-hour strike last week. He has warned the Organization of American States not to intervene in Venezuela, saying that would surely bring on civil war.

More than 100 people have died in four months of protests against President Nicolas Maduro's government.

Donald Trump's administration in U.S. slapped sanctions on 13 senior Venezuelan officials on Wednesday as the country's opposition called a two-day nationwide strike ahead of President Nicolas Maduro's plan to hold an election over the weekend for a special congress to rewrite the constitution. An average of 78 people a day died violently past year in this country of 31.5 million, according the non-governmental Venezuelan Violence Observatory.

A growing list of air carriers has suspended service to Venezuela as the country sinks further into economic and political ruin. But the two Maduro allies were not included in the latest round of punitive measures.

The U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the individuals targeted for sanctions were accused of supporting Maduro's crackdown, harming democratic institutions or victimizing Venezuelans through corruption, and that additional "bad actors" could be sanctioned later.

Over the past couple of years the escalating crises in what once was the richest South American country has led to steep deterioration of public health with infectious diseases such as malaria creeping back.

The opposition-led National Assembly, meanwhile, has challenged the government by appointing 33 supreme court judges to rival ones loyal to Maduro.

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He also called the sanctions "illegal, insolent and unprecedented". They are against his attempt to rewrite the constitution through a constituent assembly whose members are set to be chosen Sunday in an election.

Before the strike began, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez urged Venezuelans to keep up protests in a 15-minute video posted online.

"I can say that in the second semester we will sign important documents that would expand mutual investment between Russian oil and gas companies and our PDVSA [Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., a state-owned oil and natural gas company]".

The most serious of the potential future steps would be financial sanctions that would halt dollar payments for the country's oil, starving the government of hard currency, or a total ban on oil imports to the United States, Venezuela's biggest customer. Maduro over the weekend said the government had held talks with the opposition and that postponing the vote had been on the table but that the opposition did not follow through.

Maduro accused the U.S. of fomenting the unrest against him and his government, with the help of the conservative opposition. In the past, Maduro's administration has denied charges from Washington, calling them a pretext to try to topple socialism in Latin America and win control of Venezuela's oil sector.

Venezuela's economy is expected to shrink by 12% in 2017, with inflation at 720%, following a contraction of 18% in 2016, according to the latest forecast from the International Monetary Fund.

The opposition claimed Maduro was creating a dictatorship.

USA sanctions top Venezuelan officials as general strike paralyzes country