, CARACAS, Aug 11 – Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro said Thursday he wants a one-to-one talk with US President Donald Trump, who has slapped him with sanctions, but stood defiant against “imperialist aggression.”
Speaking to a new, all-powerful loyalist assembly he saw installed through elections last month, Maduro said he had instructed his foreign minister to set it up “so I have a personal conversation with Donald Trump.”
He said he had also given orders, “if it can happen,” for a face-to-face to be organized in New York on September 20 when heads of state and government from around the world gather for a UN General Assembly.
“If he’s so interested in Venezuela, here I am. Mister Donald Trump, here is my hand,” he said.
But Maduro used substantial parts of his three-hour-plus speech lambasting the “imperialist” US for perceived actions against his regime. “We will never cede to foreign powers,” he said.
The United States hit Maduro with sanctions on July 31, the day after the election of the loyalist Constituent Assembly that Washington said was “illegitimate” and in service of a “dictator.”
It followed up this week with more sanctions against several members of the assembly.
The measures freeze any US assets of those designated and bar Americans from doing business with them.
Maduro stated that the assembly held supreme powers over all branches of government, even over his position, and that its work — ostensibly to rewrite the constitution — would return “peace” to the country.
But the United States and major Latin American nations say Maduro is using the body as a tool to quash dissent, by clamping down on the opposition and the legislature it controls.
– Opposition decries persecution –
On Thursday, the opposition accused the government Thursday of persecution after the supreme court this week sentenced two of its mayors to 15 months in prison for not preventing anti-government protests. Both were also barred from holding public office.
The verdict brought to 23 the number of mayors targeted by legal action, according to the opposition.
“Is this the peace that Maduro is talking about?” said Gerardo Blyde, another mayor who is the target of a legal investigation.
The Constituent Assembly has already sacked the attorney general, a Maduro appointee-turned-critic who opposed its creation as unconstitutional.
The developments fuelled tensions that have been flaring in Venezuela for the past four months. Nearly 130 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and security forces.
The protests have lost steam in the past week as security forces have stepped up repression and demonstrators have grown discouraged by the opposition’s failure to bring about change.
But hackers have taken up the torch. On Thursday a group calling itself The Binary Guardians claimed responsibility for a massive cyberattack that cut mobile telephone service to seven million users.
“These terrorist actions which affected the Movilnet’s GSM platform on Wednesday left without communication seven of the state operator’s 13 million users,” Science and Technology Minister Hugbel Roa said.
He said it was part of a wave of attacks that began Monday when dozens of government and private company websites were hacked.
– Disputed elections –
The opposition coalition, a grouping of around 30 disparate parties called the Democratic Unity Roundtable, has been struggling with how to keep pressure on Maduro, whom it wants to see ousted through early elections.
On Wednesday, after much debate, the coalition said it would contest overdue regional elections in Venezuela’s 23 states on December 10, with the aim of holding Maduro to the electoral calendar, which also sees the next presidential election in October 2018.
One radical party split from the coalition over the decision.
Polls suggest the opposition would win most of the states, if the elections are fair, replicating its landslide 2015 victory in taking control of the National Assembly.
But the opposition blasted as “fraudulent” the balloting that elected the Constituent Assembly.
A British-based company, Smartmatic, that supplied the voting technology has said the turnout figure was “tampered with.”
Maduro and his government are deeply unpopular, as the country’s 30 million citizens suffer under a long economic crisis that has resulted in shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation — a harsh reality for an oil-rich country that used to be one of Latin America’s wealthiest.