U.S. lawmakers blast Venezuela for cutting short recall effort against Maduro

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U.S. lawmakers assailed on Friday the Venezuelan electoral authority’s abrupt suspension of a recall drive against President Nicolás Maduro and called it unconstitutional.

The lawmakers – Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, all Republicans – said the country's elections commission had acted against the will of the Venezuelan people with its Thursday decision despite a petition by Maduro opponents that bore the signatures of about 1 percent of the electorate.

In August, the elections commission announced that the recall drive could proceed, and it was to begin next week. Opponents of Maduro’s socialist government were preparing to collect and validate about 4 million signatures within the next week in order to pave the way for a referendum on whether to recall the president.

The U.S. lawmakers called the commission’s move illegal, and also took to task the Obama administration for not being tougher in addressing Maduro’s attempts to oppress political opponents.

“The Venezuelan people have made it clear at the ballot box they are sick of Maduro's incompetence and corruption at all levels of government,” said Rubio in a statement released Friday, “and have worked through the constitutional process to remove him – only to see him and his puppets on the supreme court and elections commission illegally squash the people's will.”

The statement went on, “It's shameful the Obama administration has only sanctioned seven Venezuelan regime officials to date, and none in the past 19 months.”

With the latest actions, the government has effectively halted the effort to stage a recall effort that polls suggest Maduro would have lost by a wide margin.

"This is a big deal and reveals that the government was fearful of what could happen in the three-day signature collection period," David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, told the Associated Press. "They have effectively postponed the recall referendum indefinitely. This measure makes it difficult to think of Venezuela as a democracy."

Venezuelan officials cited alleged fraud in a preliminary effort to get 1 percent of voters' signatures as justification for blocking the opposition from proceeding to the next stage of the referendum. Maduro's critics blame the late President Hugo Chávez's heir for Venezuela's economic collapse, bare store shelves and the jailing of opposition leaders.

Ros-Lehtinen called for the Obama administration to broaden sanctions against Venezuelan officials, a move that would ban them from traveling to the U.S. and freeze any assets of theirs in this country.

She also urged the international community to put more pressure on the South American nation's government to stop punishing dissent and to respond swiftly to the elections commission’s suspension of the recall drive.

“The Organization of American States must invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement, “and call an emergency permanent council meeting to examine the unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order of Venezuela.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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