The United States on Friday promised further sanctions to pressure Venezuela's leftist leader Nicolas Maduro, accusing him of bribing lawmakers to block the re-election of his opponent Juan Guaido.
The National Assembly will vote on January 5 on whether to give a new term to Guaido, the 36-year-old engineer considered interim president by most Western and Latin American countries.
"The regime is using a combination of threats, arrests and bribes -- up to $500,000 per vote, we have been told -- to stop the re-election of Juan Guaido," Elliott Abrams, the US envoy leading efforts to oust Maduro, told reporters in Washington.
"That is Step One. Step Two will be to try to grab control of the National Assembly by preventing free elections in 2020," he said.
"That is why we will continue our sanctions and strengthen them," Abrams said.
He declined to preview the sanctions. The US has already sought to end Venezuela's shipments of oil, its vital money-maker.
Abrams and the top US diplomat accredited for Venezuela, James Story, declined to say how the US would react if Guaido lost but voiced confidence he would prevail.
"It's clear that the majority of the National Assembly continue to support interim president Juan Guaido, as does the vast majority of the Venezuelan people," said Story, who has been stationed in Colombia since Washington suspended embassy operations in Caracas.
"He is by far the most popular politician in the country."
More than 50 countries say that Guaido is the legitimate president, citing the credibility of National Assembly elections and wide reports of irregularities in Maduro's re-election last year.
But Maduro has defied nearly a year of pressure and enjoys the support of Venezuela's military, Russia and China despite a crumbling economy that has sent millions of Venezuelans fleeing.
"I think everybody has to hope that change comes in Venezuela fast. We hoped it a year ago, we hope it today. Why? Because the humanitarian situation is terrible and getting worse," Abrams said.
Colombia, a close US ally which has taken in 1.4 million Venezuelans, has called for a larger role by Washington in talks between Maduro and Guaido.
Abrams dismissed direct mediation and reiterated the US insistence that any talks discuss replacing Maduro.
"We're not brokering discussions, but if they are serious discussions, we would certainly want to see those succeed," Abrams said.