Venezuela’s Socialist President Nicolas Maduro remains defiant despite domestic unrest, a flagging economy and international, particularly western, pressure. He has sharply targeted the Lima Group which had refused to invite him for the Summit of the Americas to be held in Lima in the second week of April 2018.

The Lima group, a coalition of over a dozen conservative Latin American governments, which was formed last year to push for what it termed, restoration of democracy in Venezuela, and issued a harsh statement objecting to Maduro’s decision to call early elections which they said would be against democratic principles and international standards . Maduro’s response was that he would attend invitation or no invitation and he asked whether the Lima Group was afraid of him.

The new Constituent Assembly announced that Presidential elections would be held in April months ahead of the usual schedule. And President Nicolas Maduro declared that he would be in the running. The U.S. State Department criticised the holding of early elections saying that they would deny citizens of the of their democratic rights-to which Venezuela's Socialist Party chief Diosdado Cabello countered by saying that elections were the best way to counter criticism by the USA and others that Venezuela was descending into a dictatorship.

The Venezuelan opposition had been demanding that the United Nations observe the forthcoming Presidential elections and that Venezuelans living abroad be allowed to cast their vote. Two of Venezuela’s biggest opposition parties, Justice First and Democratic Action, wanted to register for the elections but the Supreme Court had excluded the opposition coalition from registering for the vote. Leopoldo Lopez’s party, Popular Will, was banned from registering. Lopez himself and Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s most popular leaders, were already banned from standing as candidates in the elections.

The Venezuelan opposition and Maduro’s government had been holding rounds of talks in the Dominican Republic with representatives present from Bolivia, Chile, Mexico and Nicaragua also present. After the latest round Jorge Rodriguez, Venezuela's Communications Minister, said in a statement to the press that a "pre-agreement" had been signed—a contention refuted by former opposition-led National Assembly president Julio Borges. He said that there were areas in which an advance had been made and others where there had been no progress. Another round of talks was to take place though the date had not yet been announced.

The Trump administration has been particularly hostile to Maduro. U.S. President Donald Trump had at one point himself suggested possible military intervention in Venezuela. Recently US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on the eve of a five nation tour of Latin America that the Venezuelan military could decide to oust President Nicolas Maduro, but said he did not know whether that would happen. He said the Trump administration was not advocating "regime change" in Venezuela, but said it would be "easiest" if Maduro chose to leave power on his own.

Venezuela’s opposition leaders have long urged the military to take action against Maduro. Maduro claims the United States and opposition parties are part of an international right-wing conspiracy to oust him and get their hands on the nation’s oil wealth. Countries supporting Maduro’s government have been coming in for criticism and the U.S. Treasury's top economic diplomat, David Malpass, had gone to the extent of accusing China of enabling poor governance in Venezuela by propping up President Maduro’s government through “murky” oil-for-loan investments.

Venezuela and Maduro’s isolation at the instance of the US had been exacerbated by his holding elections for a new Constituent Assembly last year in August despite an opposition boycott and mass protests that were said to have resulted in over 200 deaths. Already under American sanctions since US President Obama’s tenure, on August 24, 2017, President Trump imposed fresh sanctions that primarily targeted the Government of Venezuela and the country’s oil industry.

The American example was followed by Canada and the European Union. The Canadian sanctions were aimed at "key figures" of the Maduro regime and among the measures ordered by Canada were the freezing of assets and the prohibition that Canadian citizens, inside and outside the country, maintain economic relations with the sanctioned.

The European Union banned arms sales to Venezuela and imposed asset freezes and travel restrictions on some Venezuelan officials. The process of maintaining pressure on Maduro continued and the U.S.A had early this year imposed sanctions against ten Venezuelan officials, including a member of the recently elected Constituent Assembly, several electoral officials, and a diplomat. The US Treasury placed four serving or retired Venezuelan generals on its sanctions blacklist saying the four were either involved in repressing protesters or tied up in major corruption schemes.

Responding to such actions Delcy Rodriguez, President of Maduro's Constituent Assembly had said President Trump "and his eccentric government should understand that Venezuela would never give in to blackmail or threats." The European Union imposed economic and travel sanctions recently on seven senior Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses or breaching the rule of law. The most prominent official on the European list is Diosdado Cabello, the head of Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party who is considered to be the nation’s second most powerful leader.

Maduro and his government were accused of major human rights violations particularly in the run-up to the elections to the new Constituent Assembly. Opposition leaders and activists had been arrested. In fact countries like Canada and the USA had cited human rights violations as one of the reasons for the sanctions against Venezuela. Rights groups and foes of Maduro said authorities were unfairly holding 268 political prisoners for protesting against “dictatorship.” The government was prepared to release only 80 jailed anti-government activists and Maduro said all jailed activists were in prison on legitimate charges of violence and subversion.

The imposition of economic sanctions meant that Venezuela would not be able to refinance its hefty debt burden, and that would likely add to investor concern about the Venezuelan currency. In an effort to ease the situation Maduro had announced that his government would be issuing nearly $US6 billion of petros a cryptocurrency and there were plans to issue 100 million petros, backed by 100 million barrels of oil reserves.

A pre-sale of the new "petro" cryptocurrency is to begin on Feb. 20 according to the President. Maduro’s hope is that the move would help raise hard currency and evade the financial sanctions. But the plan has been criticized by the opposition controlled Parliament which outlawed the "petro" cryptocurrency calling it an effort to illegally mortgage the cash-strapped country's oil reserves.

The government had ordered some 214 supermarkets owned by 26 chains to drop their prices according to a report in the pro-government newspaper Ultimas Noticias. The announcement led to mobs outside some Caracas supermarkets creating chaos as desperate Venezuelans leapt at the chance to buy cheaper food as the country’s worsening economy caused severe shortages. The move could be self defeating as the supermarkets were likely to stop stocking items that had to be sold at the lower prices.

On the diplomatic front the President of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly accused diplomats from Canada and Brazil of meddling in Venezuelan affairs. Venezuela declared diplomats from the two countries persona non grata. Canada had responded by barring Venezuela’s top diplomat, saying the Venezuelan government was undemocratic and guilty of human rights abuses. Brazil had also taken retaliatory action saying it considered Venezuelan chargé d’affaires Gerardo Antonio Delgado Maldonado a persona non grata.

International criticism and domestic disarray have very apparently not chastened Maduro. For the moment, despite all the country’s problems, Maduro remains in control and would most likely win the next elections especially with prominent opposition leaders barred from standing as candidates. The question is whether given Rex Tillerson’s recent comments, the Trump administration is planning any move to prevent a continuation of Nicolas Maduro’s rule.