Two opposition leaders were taken from their homes by security forces following a controversial vote — mere hours after the United States slapped the country with sanctions directly targeting President Nicolás Maduro.
Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, both former mayors of Caracas and staunch critics of Maduro, were seized during overnight raids on Monday. Lopez previously served three years of a 13-year prison sentence for his role in opposition protests, while Ledezma was arrested in 2015 for similar activities. Both men were under house arrest at the time of the raids as a result of their prior detentions.
Friends and family confirmed the abductions on social media. “12:27 in the morning: the moment when the dictatorship kidnaps Leopoldo at my house,” Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, wrote on Twitter. Vanessa Ledezma similarly tweeted that she would hold Maduro and the government responsible for any harm done to her father.
12:27 de la madrugada: Momento en el que la dictadura secuestra a Leopoldo en mi casa. No lo van a doblegar! pic.twitter.com/0EdlQvEGXS
— Lilian Tintori (@liliantintori) August 1, 2017
Mitzy. Por la fuerza a golpes y empujones se llevan a Antonio de nuestra casa. Hacemos responsable al régimen por su vida e integridad!!! pic.twitter.com/69xZ7IqZk0
— Antonio Ledezma (@alcaldeledezma) August 1, 2017
The raids are a reminder of the grim new reality Venezuelan opposition activists face. For years the once-wealthy country has suffered under the weight of plummeting oil prices and staggering food shortages, caused in large part by price controls instituted under former President Hugo Chavez and continued by Maduro. In January, Venezuela’s inflation rate hit 800 percent — accompanied by a rapidly contracting economy.
Worsening matters is the nation’s political crisis. Maduro has been at odds with the opposition-controlled National Assembly for a long time. After suspending elections last fall, Maduro attempted to hand over the legislative body’s powers to the government-friendly Supreme Court in March — spurring outrage and protests across the country. Undaunted, Maduro moved to re-write Venezuela’s constitution and called for a vote to create a new congress, one packed with his supporters.
On Sunday, Maduro got his wish. Despite shockingly low turnout (only about 12 percent of Venezuelans voted, according to activists), the vote gave Maduro sweeping control over all branches of government — crushing any hope that the legislature might remain independent of the president and fueling protesters even further.
Advocacy groups and watchdog organizations slammed the vote and the subsequent arrests of Lopez and Ledezma.
“The Maduro administration is sending a terrifying message to all people in Venezuela: dissent will not be tolerated in any form,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International. She also expressed concern about the swiftness of Venezuela’s downward spiral.
“The clock is ticking fast and time is running out for authorities in Venezuela to make a decisive U-turn when it comes to their approach to free expression,” she said. “The alternative is simply too frightening.”
While shaky to begin with, relations between Venezuela and the United States have further deteriorated following the vote. On Monday the United States announced new sanctions against Venezuela, freezing any U.S. assets Maduro may have and blocking U.S. citizens from conducting business with the Venezuelan president.
“Maduro is not just a bad leader,” said U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. “He is now a dictator.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also weighed in on Venezuela’s election, condemning Maduro and expressing support for sanctions.
“Yesterday’s illegitimate elections confirm that Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people,” Mnuchin said. “By sanctioning Maduro, the United States makes clear our opposition to the policies of his regime and our support for the people of Venezuela who seek to return their country to a full and prosperous democracy.”
Such aggressive rhetoric doesn’t quite match up to reality. While the sanctions against Venezuela are the harshest yet by President Trump’s administration, Monday’s measures were initially expected to go even further than they did. Maduro himself seemed unfazed by the relatively weak sanctions, dismissing the efforts as an attempt by the “North American empire” to undermine him.
“You are either with Trump or you are with Venezuela,” Maduro told a crowd on Monday. “You are either with Trump or with democracy.” He went on to further lament the sanctions and interference from abroad. “Why are they sanctioning me?” he asked. “Because I don’t comply with foreign governments? Because I don’t wag my tail and am not a stray dog?”
While the election solidified Maduro’s power, members of the opposition are still prepared to fight. Protests were ongoing Sunday, with at least 10 people killed and many more injured. Following the vote, leaders indicated they were prepared to carry on despite the setback.
“This is the end of freedom of expression, and this freedom has been battered for some time now,” Attorney General Luisa Ortega said. “This is a smokescreen to hide the corruption and crisis that Venezuela faces. But they will have to climb over the institution that I represent, the people of Venezuela and our constitution.”
Further sanctions are also being considered by the United States, likely targeting the country’s oil industry. But that option isn’t popular, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a D.C. think tank.
“The international community’s options are not great because what hits the government the hardest is oil,” Shifter told the Guardian, “but anything that involves oil is going to hit Venezuelans hard too and they are already suffering.”