Opposition leaders arrested in Venezuela, deepening the country's political crisis

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: The political crisis facing Venezuela and its president, Nicolas Maduro, deepened today; 120 people have been killed there during three months of unrest, 10 this past Sunday alone, amid an ongoing economic catastrophe.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: They came in the dead of night. Venezuelan security agents descended on the home of opposition leader Antonio Ledezma and took him away in his pajamas.

Meanwhile, security cameras captured the same scene at the home of another prominent opponent of the Maduro regime, Leopoldo Lopez. In the aftermath, the families of the two former mayors said their fates were still unknown.

MITZY CAPRILES, Wife of Antonio Ledezma (through interpreter): We have knowledge that Antonio is already in the Ramo Verde military prison. Officially, we have not found out anything from the government.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, Venezuela's Supreme Court said the pair were arrested for violating their house arrests. Their lawyers deny the charges.

The seizures came after Sunday's deeply divisive election to fill a new constituent assembly tasked with rewriting the country's constitution. The new body, filled with leftist supporters of President Maduro, has enormous power. It can dismiss lawmakers and dismantle existing branches of government. It's widely viewed as a way for Maduro to tighten his grip on power.

Afterwards, both Lopez and Ledezma denounced the vote.

ANTONIO LEDEZMA, Opposition Leader (through interpreter): This is a fraud. We know perfectly that public powers have become a political machinery at the service of a totalitarian regime, a tyranny.

MARGARET WARNER: Andrea Saldarriaga Jimenez is assistant director of the Latin America Center at The Atlantic Council.

ANDREA SALDARRIAGA JIMENEZ, The Atlantic Council: I think it shows that Maduro is moving to grab further onto power, and that he feels that there's no checks and balances that he needs to respect. I think the opposition is stronger than ever. Unfortunately, I can see a ramp-up of the violence.

MARGARET WARNER: In Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sharply criticized the arrests. And he added this:

REX TILLERSON, U.S. Secretary of State: We are evaluating all of our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions, where either Maduro decides he doesn't have a future and wants to leave of his own accord, or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.

MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, the administration slapped personal sanctions on Maduro. Maduro responded by mocking the action on state TV.

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO, Venezuela (through interpreter): I am proud of the so-called sanctions, Mr. Emperor Donald Trump.

MARGARET WARNER: The administration could impose tougher sanctions, if it goes after the country's oil industry. The U.S. is the largest importer of Venezuela's crude oil. And since oil accounts for some 90 percent of Venezuela's export earnings, that puts the Caracas government at risk.

Venezuela's economy is in a freefall, due in large part to tumbling oil prices. If the U.S. is not careful, warns Saldarriaga Jimenez, further sanctions could backfire.

ANDREA SALDARRIAGA JIMENEZ: If you look at the range of what they have for the income of the government to then provide services, food, all of these different social programs that they have, the bandwidth is pretty small. And so if you think about an already vulnerable population that is facing food scarcity, medicine scarcity, it's really worrying.

MARGARET WARNER: A serious concern for the Trump administration, as it decides with what to do next with Venezuela.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Margaret Warner.

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