Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has ordered the EU’s ambassador to Caracas to leave the country in response to the bloc’s decision to sanction 11 officials close to his government.
The move is the latest in a series of recent measures Mr Maduro has taken to silence international criticism of his regime and weaken the opposition ahead of congressional elections due later this year.
Mr Maduro gave ambassador Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa, a Portuguese diplomat, 72 hours to leave. The EU had imposed the sanctions earlier on Monday.
“Who are they to impose sanctions?” he said in a televised address on Monday. “Enough! . . . Enough of European colonialism against Venezuela, of persecution of Venezuela!”
On Tuesday, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, signalled that Brussels would retaliate.
“We condemn and reject the expulsion of our EU ambassador in Caracas,” Mr Borrell wrote on Twitter. “The EU will take the usual necessary measures of reciprocity. Only a negotiated solution between Venezuelans will allow the country to emerge from its deep crisis.”
The officials named by Brussels include Luis Parra, who in January led a parliamentary coup against Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly. The EU, US and most Latin American countries recognise Mr Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. The EU also sanctioned Mr Parra’s vice-presidents Franklyn Duarte and José Gregorio Noriega.
Others on the list include a vice-president of the Supreme Court, magistrates, Mr Maduro’s comptroller-general and a former member of the armed forces who the EU said was “responsible for serious human rights violations”.
Since it first imposed punitive measures against the Maduro regime in late 2017, the EU has sanctioned 36 officials.
Tensions between the bloc and Caracas have risen in recent weeks as Mr Maduro has used the Supreme Court to stifle his opponents ahead of congressional elections which must be held by the end of the year.
On June 12, the court, which is controlled by Maduro supporters, appointed a new electoral council without congressional consent. Three of the five rectors on the new council are from the government coalition and another is from a small opposition group that has curried favour with the regime.
The main opposition parties said they would neither recognise the new council nor take part in any elections it organised.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said the government had chosen a council that “will rubber-stamp its decisions and ignore the conditions required for free elections”.
Days later, the Supreme Court suspended the board of directors of Acción Democrática (Democratic Action), one of the four main opposition parties in Mr Guaidó’s coalition and one of the oldest parties in the country, dating back to the 1940s.
It replaced AD’s secretary-general Henry Ramos Allup with Bernabé Gutiérrez, a rebel from within party ranks. Mr Ramos and his supporters defied the court ruling and expelled Mr Gutiérrez.
The following day the Supreme Court moved against Primero Justicia (Justice First), another of the four big opposition parties. It named José Brito as its new leader, even though he was kicked out of the party last year for corruption.
The EU condemned the moves, saying they “reduce the democratic space in the country to a minimum”, while Mr Guaidó described the Supreme Court as “the judicial arm of the dictatorship”.
In addition, Mr Maduro’s attorney-general is trying to get Mr Guaido’s party, Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), declared a terrorist organisation, saying it orchestrated violence during anti-government street protests in 2014 and 2017.
The Supreme Court is expected to move against the fourth of the big opposition parties, Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time), in the coming weeks. A rebel from within the party has asked the court to replace its leadership.
The opposition says that rather than banning the parties outright, the regime is co-opting them so it can claim a veneer of legitimacy when it goes to the polls for a new congress later in the year.
The elections are important because the US and its allies regard the National Assembly as the last democratic institution in Venezuela, and because Mr Guaido’s claim to be the country’s legitimate interim president is based on his leadership of the assembly.
The last congressional elections were held in 2015, just two years into Mr Maduro’s rule. The opposition won two-thirds of the seats.
Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels