ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A months-long confrontation in Venezuela is intensifying over elections scheduled for this weekend. The opposition is boycotting what it says will be a rigged vote organized by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Today the White House added its voice to those calling for the vote to be canceled, and it sanctioned Venezuelans involved with it. NPR's Philip Reeves joins us from Rio, where he's following the lead-up to Sunday's Venezuelan vote. And, Phil, Venezuela has a sitting president, has a Congress. The vote is something new. Who's being elected?
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, this is to create a new body called a constituent assembly. That body would have the power to rewrite the Constitution. And that's something that Nicolas Maduro, the president, has for some time said that he wants to happen. His opponents say that a new constitution could well lead to the cancelation of elections. It might also mean that Congress gets abolished. And that would mean the end, finally, of democracy in Venezuela. And it would shift to an all-out dictatorship under Maduro.
They point in particular to the fact that this new assembly, this constituent assembly - that a third of its members are going to be drawn from organizations like, you know, workers' groups, for example, that are tied to the government socialist party. And in that sense, it will be rigged to be pro-government, pro-Maduro.
SIEGEL: Well, now the U.S. has weighed in. Tell us more about that.
REEVES: Yeah. They're piling pressure on Maduro to call off these elections on Sunday. The Treasury Department has said that it's introducing sanctions against 13 present and former senior officials from Maduro's government, which means their assets will be frozen and that U.S. citizens, for example, will be banned from doing business with them.
And they include the president of the national election council and, interestingly, also the top brass from the police and National Guard. These are the security agencies whose troops have pretty much every day been doing battle with Venezuelans on the streets of the country as they go out and protest against Maduro. And at times, those security forces have used deadly force. A hundred, roughly, people have been killed over the last four months of protest.
SIEGEL: Yes. As you say, there have been protests. Some have led to violence. And now there's also a general strike underway. What are the opposition's goals in that general strike?
REEVES: Well, I think it's all part of piling pressure on Maduro to call off this plan. And it started today, and it will go on tomorrow. It's a 48-hour general strike. Reports we're getting from Venezuela indicate that parts of the country were, indeed, paralyzed by this strike. Parts of Caracas were - came to pretty much a total standstill. There were barricades erected across the streets and shops were shut. Other parts of the country, particularly areas where there are state-run enterprises, were functioning. The government-run enterprises kept open.
SIEGEL: Phil, is there any expectation that President Maduro might respond either to the general strike or to the international pressure from the U.S. or from others and actually change course?
REEVES: Well, there's no outward sign of him backing down. And I think that's one of the reasons why the U.S. have not only imposed these sanctions, but they're saying that there will be more. They're talking about strong and swift economic actions if Maduro imposes his constituent assembly on Venezuela. And they're also warning members of that assembly that they could - should know that they could also be sanctioned.
But people in Caracas, if you talk to them, they talk about secret negotiations that are going on between the opposition and the government. And of course, the key country in all of this is Cuba. That's the country that wields most influence over Venezuela. And again, outwardly, very little sign of movement there. A senior Cuban official said today that Cuba has no intention of helping mediate an end to the crisis that's been going on in Venezuela.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Phil Reeves in Rio de Janeiro. Phil, thanks.
REEVES: You're welcome.
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