The Trump administration hit Venezuela with a new round of economic sanctions Wednesday in a bid to discourage President Nicolas Maduro from rewriting his nation's constitution, which U.S. officials said could doom the Latin American democracy.
The sanctions target 13 current and former civilian and military officials, including the heads of several police agencies and the electoral board.
They represent the third round of sanctions for Venezuela in the six months of the Trump presidency in what one administration official called the "steady drumbeat" of efforts to put pressure on Maduro.
The Venezuelan president has scheduled a Sunday meeting of the constitutional assembly, a body stacked with his supporters, which would be in charge of rewriting the constitution. Opponents of Maduro say the project is a thinly veiled attempt by the leftist president to hold on to power indefinitely.
"It could be the end of democracy in Venezuela," a senior Trump administration official said. The official and two others briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in keeping with White House practices.
President Trump has said he would take additional "strong and swift" actions if Maduro goes ahead with the assembly. The administration officials would not say what those actions might be, only that all options are on the table.
One option might include imposing restrictions on the oil that the U.S. imports from Venezuela. Before the current crisis, oil-rich Venezuela was a top supplier of crude to the United States.
After months of mismanagement, corruption and falling oil prices, once-prosperous Venezuela has plunged into social and economic disaster. It suffers triple-digit inflation, massive shortages of basic consumer goods and one of the highest rates of homicide and violence in the hemisphere.
Near-daily protests against the Maduro government have grown increasingly desperate. More than 100 people have been killed and 4,000 arrested.
Millions of government opponents voted July 16 in a symbolic referendum against convening the constitutional assembly. The action was praised by the Trump administration.
But Maduro appears likely to proceed with the assembly.
It remains unclear why Trump, who has shown little interest in human rights or democracy-building elsewhere in the world, has focused so much attention on Venezuela. The country does have close ties to Cuba and Iran, two countries that Trump often condemns, as well as an abundant supply of oil that could be fully available to the United States once more if the government in Caracas were acceptable.