The all-powerful constitutional assembly passed a decree Tuesday ordering authorities to investigate and try Venezuelans believed responsible for supporting new U.S. economic sanctions.
The decree declares all those who promoted the latest U.S. response to the socialist government's handling of the country's political conflict as "traitors of the patria'' and directs the chief prosecutor's office to immediately initiate a probe.
"Those who call for treason leave us no option but to treat them as enemies of their own country,'' said Diosdado Cabello, a delegate and leader of the ruling socialist party.
The move came just days after President Nicolas Maduro vowed to prosecute for treason opponents he accused of being behind the U.S. financial sanctions.
Maduro singled out Julio Borges, president of Venezuela's opposition-controlled congress, but Borges said Tuesday that he bore no responsibility for Venezuela's growing economic peril. "The only one responsible is Maduro,'' Borges said.
The sanctions announced last week prohibit American financial institutions from providing new money to the government or the state oil company, PDVSA. They also ban trading in two bonds that the government recently issued to circumvent its increasing isolation from Western financial markets.
In addition, the sanctions restrict the Venezuelan oil giant's U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, from sending dividends back to Venezuela — moves that Maduro has said will be damaging to this nation's beleaguered economy.
U.S. officials contend the sanctions were crafted to avoid causing harm to ordinary Venezuelans and punish a government that U.S. President Donald Trump now brands a dictatorship.
France's president, Emmanuel Macron, echoed that assessment Tuesday, saying Maduro's administration is "a dictatorship'' that is "trying to survive at the cost of an unprecedented humanitarian distress.''
The sanctions are certain to cause further strife in a country where food shortages are common. The average Venezuelan lost 19 pounds last year, according to one study.
Former corrections minister Iris Varela, now a constitutional assembly delegate, received a resounding applause Tuesday when she said Venezuela can't allow "traitors'' to get away without punishment. Those who betray Venezuela and take advantage of U.S. aggression "will have to be shot,'' she said.
The assembly, which is supposed to write a new constitution, was installed in early August following a disputed election of delegates. The assembly trumps all other branches of Venezuela's government and is ruling with virtually unlimited power.