Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, left, talks to his Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez during Army Day celebrations at Fuerte Tiuna, in Caracas, Venezuela. Padrino Lopez challenged on Wednesday, July 19, 2017 the countries that have declared against the government’s initiative to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, saying the nation will not submit to foreign governments. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Venezuela rejects Trump sanctions threat, reviews relations

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela rejected President Donald Trump’s call to halt a rewriting of the constitution that would consolidate the power of the socialist government, which said Tuesday that it is reviewing its relations with the United States in response to Trump’s threat of sanctions.

“No foreign government controls Venezuela,” President Nicolas Maduro told a nationally televised meeting of his National Defence Council, an emergency body he convened Tuesday in reaction to Trump’s critiques. “Here in Venezuela, Venezuelans give the orders, not Trump.”

Trump threatened on Monday to take unspecified “economic actions” if Maduro goes ahead with a July 30 vote on a constituent assembly to retool the constitution. Maduro’s socialist supporters want the assembly to grant him more power over the few institutions still outside the control of his ruling party.

Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada said on state television that the election of assembly members will take place as planned and that Maduro has asked him to reconsider Venezuela’s diplomatic relations with the U.S.

“The constitutional assembly is happening,” Moncada said, adding that Venezuela is “conducting a deep review of relations with the U.S. government because we don’t accept humiliation from anyone.”

Trump administration officials told reporters Tuesday that they were considering a wide range of sanctions on Venezuela, including cuts in oil imports.

Trump has imposed travel bans and has frozen the assets of high-ranking officials in recent weeks, but refrained from broad sanctions against the country that could deepen its economic crisis.

Venezuela exports an average of 700,000 barrels of oil a day to the U.S., about half its total exports. Because much of the other half serves as payment of debt owed to China, a total cut in exports to the U.S. would slash Venezuelan government income by 75 per cent, Angel Alvarado, a congress member and economist, told The Associated Press.

Venezuela’s opposition called Monday for a 24-hour nationwide strike to pressure Maduro to drop his plans to rewrite the constitution. The opposition said that more than 7.5 million people voted against the constitutional assembly at unofficial ballot boxes set up nationwide and in expatriate communities Sunday.

While that number cannot be independently verified, it’s roughly equivalent to the number of votes garnered by winning candidates in recent Venezuelan elections, an indication that Venezuelans would vote down the constitutional assembly if asked in an official referendum.

Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Colombia and the European Union have also come out against the effort.

The opposition said it would launch a plan it called “zero hour” on Wednesday that includes an agreement to form an alternate government and create 2,000 local committees that would function as street-level support for the opposition.

That would be followed Thursday by a nationwide strike, which could bring much of Venezuela’s already sputtering economy to a standstill. Venezuela’s largest chamber of commerce told The Associated Press that its members would not punish employees for participating in the strike.

On Friday, the opposition plans to name 13 judges to the supreme court to replace those named by the outgoing, ruling-party-dominated congress in 2015 in a process that legal experts say violated nomination procedures. Those nominations would not give the opposition a supreme court majority but are almost certain to be rejected by the current court and the executive branch, making them a largely symbolic tactic to increase pressure on Maduro.

The opposition’s plan did not call for street protests but dozens of opposition members nonetheless blocked streets in the capital, Caracas, and other cities. Some appeared to be reacting to an apparent call by rogue police inspector Oscar Perez, whom the government blames for attacking government buildings from a helicopter last month.

A voice described as Perez’s called for street blockades in a recording widely distributed on social media around Venezuela Tuesday morning.

More than three months of street protests have left at least 93 people dead and 1,500 wounded. More than 500 protesters and government opponents have been jailed.

Opponents of Venezuela’s government blame it for turning one of the region’s most prosperous countries into an economic basket case with a shrinking economy, soaring inflation and widespread shortages. The government blames the crisis on an economic war waged by its opponents and outside backers.

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