The U.S. Department of Treasury on Monday added the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, to a sanctions list for his role in undermining democracy in the wake of what the United States has called "sham" elections in the oil rich South American nation.
"Yesterday's illegitimate elections confirm that Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at the White House.
The sanctions came a day after the Maduro government held elections for a National Constituent Assembly "that aspires illegitimately to usurp the constitutional role of the democratically elected National Assembly, rewrite the constitution, and impose an authoritarian regime on the people of Venezuela," the Treasury Department said in a statement.
The elections had caused what the Treasury Department described as "a rupture in Venezuela’s constitutional and democratic order."
As a result of the sanction, all assets of Maduro subject to U.S. jurisdiction are frozen, and U.S. persons are prohibited from dealing with him.
Officials are also considering sanctions to target Venezuela's state-owned petroleum company, PDVSA, but no announcement on the oil sector was made Monday.
The White House is concerned an embargo on Venezuelan oil imports could result in a total social and economic collapse with unpredictable consequences, said Jorge Piñon, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program at the University of Texas at Austin. "That's the Doomsday scenario," he said.
Another option being looked at is to cut off exports of U.S. light crude to Venezuela which is blended with domestic heavy crude for export to other countries such as India, China and Cuba.
Venezuela is the third largest supplier to the U.S. and depends on petroleum for 90 percent of its export revenue. The oil relationship leaves the U.S. with enormous potential political and economic leverage over Venezuela. The U.S. buys nearly half of Venezuela's oil, while Venezuelan oil accounts for just 8 percent of U.S. oil imports.
Maduro is the latest in a long list of senior current and former Venezuelan officials, including Vice President Tarek El Aissami , who have been sanctioned by the U.S. in recent months for their alleged role in human rights abuses, corruption and undermining democracy.
Anyone who participates in the Constituent Assembly could also be exposed to future U.S. sanctions for their role in undermining democratic processes and institutions, Mnuchin said.
U.S. National Security Adviser HR McMaster said the Venezuelan leader had joined an "exclusive club" that also includes Syria's Bashar al-Assad, North Korea's Kim Jong-un, and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.
Maduro was elected President of Venezuela in April, 2013, following the death of former President Hugo Chavez.
The Treasury Department accused the Maduro government of "widespread human rights abuses," including systematically repressing opposition political parties using imprisonment, assault, torture, and assassination. It added "Maduro’s regime has mismanaged the economy and engaged in systemic corruption."
Venezuela's electoral authorities said more than 8 million people (41 percent of eligible voters) voted Sunday to create a constitutional assembly endowing Maduro's ruling party with virtually unlimited powers - a figure widely disputed by independent analysts. Opinion polls showed 85 percent of Venezuelans disapproved of the constitutional assembly and similar numbers disapprove of Maduro's overall performance.
Independent analysts and opposition leaders estimated the real turnout at less than half the government's claim in a vote watched by government-allied observers but no internationally recognized poll monitors.
Maduro has said the new assembly will begin to govern within a week. He said he would use the assembly's powers to bar opposition candidates from running in gubernatorial elections in December unless they sit with his party to negotiate an end to hostilities that have generated four months of protests that have killed at least 120 and wounded nearly 2,000.
AP reported that an exit poll based on surveys from 110 voting centers estimated 3.6 million people voted, or about 18.5 percent of registered voters.
The European Union and nations including Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Spain, Britain and the United States criticized Sunday's vote. Maduro said he had received congratulations from the governments of Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, among others.