The State Department on Wednesday accused Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of undermining democracy even further by looking to try his political opponents for treason, which the U.S. said was creating "yet another rupture" in his nation's constitutional order.
"This injustice is only the latest in a sustained effort by the Maduro regime to undermine democracy, repress political dissent, and sow fear among its critics," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday. "It embodies yet another rupture in Venezuela's constitutional order and defies the fact that in democracies, ideas and opinions are not crimes."
Maduro's team argues its political opponents are responsible for President Trump's decision to impose sanctions on his government. The proposal to try them for treason was delivered through the new assembly that Maduro established to rewrite the constitution in order to circumvent those opponents, in defiance of domestic protests and Western condemnation.
Venezuela has staggered through a food crisis for years, which produced political chaos in recent months. Maduro's allies on the Supreme Court abrogated the authority of the national legislature, which was controlled by opposition politicians. He consolidated that move by pushing through a referendum to establish a new legislative body, known as the National Constituent Assembly, tasked with the rewriting of the constitution.
The assembly also accused Maduro's opponents and even some former supporters of "engag[ing] in the promotion of these immoral actions against the interests of the Venezuelan people," according to the BBC.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's team pointed out that Venezuela has faced economic struggles for years, quite apart from last week's sanctions.
"The United States condemns the call by Venezuela's illegitimate Constituent Assembly for trials of the political opposition, including members of the democratically-elected legislature, on charges of treason and alleged involvement in Venezuela's economic crisis," Nauert said. "Venezuela's economic situation is the result of the misguided policies and corruption of the Maduro regime, which bears direct responsibility for the suffering of the Venezuelan people."
The use of the national constituent assembly to promulgate treason charges might embarrass Russian diplomats who have stood by Maduro, arguing that the assembly would help stabilize the country.
"[I]ts practical launch [lays] the foundations for a new institutional framework of the country's internal political life, and which we believe are creating opportunities for Venezuela to move towards stabilization," the Russian Foreign Ministry said on August 10.
But the Russians have also argued that Trump's sanctions imperil that process. "In these circumstances, the announced sectoral sanctions against Venezuela's financial and oil sectors are clearly aimed at further unbalancing the situation in the country, and exacerbating its economic problems," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said this week.
Trump's team defended the sanctions, which restrict the sale of Venezuelan government debt, as a necessary step in preventing Maduro's regime from "plundering" the country.
"[Maduro's] officials are now resorting to opaque financing schemes and liquidating the country's assets at fire sale prices," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said last week. "We will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles."