A senior U.S. State Department official on Tuesday expressed "deep concern about the motivation" of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro's decision to order a new Constituent Assembly, and delivered some of the most stinging criticism yet of his government by Washington.
The new assembly "overrides the will of the Venezuelan people," Michael Fitzpatrick, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told reporters.
Fitzpatrick, the number two State Department official for the Americas, added that Maduro's decision "further erodes Venezuelan democracy," and hinted that the Trump adminsitration is considering new sanctions targeting local government officials in the oil-rich South American country.
On Monday night Maduro used his presidential power to decree the setting up of a new, seemingly hand-picked Constituent Assembly to replace the current National Assembly which is dominated by opposition politicial parties.
Venezuela is in the midst of a deepening political and economic crisis after a month of violent street protests calling for Maduro's ouster and new elections. The protests have claimed 29 lives and resulted in more than 1,000 arrests, according to human rights groups.
In some of the strongest language on Venezuela since President Donald Trump took office in January, Fitzpatrick called on Venezuelan authorities "to promtly hold free, fair and transparent elections."
Fitzpatrick also urged the Venezuelan government to respect an election last December for the current National Assembly which resulted in an opposition a majority.
"No democratic president can simply turn aside the results of elections, or cancel planned elections, just because he doesn't like the results," said Fitzpatrick.
"What President Maduro's trying to do yet again is change the rules of the game. Recognizing his grip on power is slipping he seeks to stack the deck ... so as to assure himself, and his cronies, access to continued power, privileges and protections," he added.
Fitzpatrick warned that the anti-democratic actions of Maduro's government were steadily isolating it from the rest of the region, and that Venezuela would be the subject of a special meeting of hemispheric foreign ministers at a date not yet determined.
While he said he was not willing to discuss further unilateral steps by the United States, he refered to sanctions imposed in February by the U.S. Treasury Department blocking the U.S. assets of Venezuela's vice president Tarek El Aissami, which he estimated at several hundred million dollars.
"The actions that were taken yesterday [by Maduro] may give us new reasons for considering additional individualized sanctions," he said, adding that the U.S. was talking to other countries in the region about "about coordinated sanctions."
Maduro has not yet given any details on how the Constituent Assembly will be selected or when it might meet. But he says its composition would respect the wishes of workers and not by the country's political parties.
Opposition leaders earlier denounced Maduro's call for a new constitution as a "giant fraud" designed to keep the president in power and deny Venezuelans the right to express their views through elections.