July 26, 2017 at 11:38 PM
The Trump administration placed sanctions on 13 current and former senior Venezuelan officials Wednesday and warned that it was prepared to take far more draconian measures if President Nicolás Maduro does not cancel a vote this weekend to choose a new congress.
Those hit with sanctions include top officials from the government, the security services and the Venezuelan oil industry. The measures, which freeze any money that they have in the United States and prohibit U.S. citizens or financial institutions from any dealing with them, are the latest in a series of steps administration officials described as a "steady drumbeat" of pressure on the Maduro government.
The vote scheduled for Sunday to elect a new super-assembly is widely seen as a move by Maduro to consolidate his power amid widespread opposition protests that have virtually shut down the country and a security crackdown that has led to deaths and massive arrests.
In a statement this month, President Trump said the United States would support Venezuelans standing for "democracy, freedom and the rule of law" ignored by "a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator" and "will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles." He promised "strong and swift economic actions" if the vote takes place.
The administration has done nothing to dampen speculation that those actions could include an embargo on oil imports from Venezuela, the United States' third-largest foreign supplier. An embargo could increase energy prices in this country and affect supply and distribution through Citgo, Venezuela's U.S. refining subsidiary.
"Sectoral sanctions," as they are called, "are something that are certainly under consideration," said one of several senior administration officials who briefed reporters Wednesday on the administration-imposed condition of anonymity.
"All options are still on the table for the president to take after July 30," the official said. "Certainly our hope is that Maduro will change his position."
Response options will go to Trump for a decision, the official said, and the government was doing a "fully thorough analysis to try to understand the impact of options not just on Venezuela but also on the U.S. . . . The goal is to try to prevent as much harm to the U.S. economy, while maximizing [impact] on the Venezuelan regime."
On Wednesday, Maduro responded in an interview with the Russian outlet RT, saying he was in the midst of striking "important" new oil and gas deals with Moscow and calling on Trump to stop his "aggression."
As the crisis in Venezuela has continued, the U.S. Congress and other nations in the hemisphere have been widely supportive of action against the Maduro government.
"The expansion of targeted sanctions against Maduro cronies with Venezuelans' blood on their hands is not only appropriate, it was necessary," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). "The implosion of Venezuela has already claimed the lives of hundreds and left millions hungry and desperate, and yet not one single Venezuelan government official or member of the security forces has been held accountable for their role in the beating, shooting, jailing or killing of Venezuela's citizens and democracy."
People familiar with the administration's internal discussions said that Trump favors a strong response and has been inclined toward targeting Venezuela's oil sector. Officials at the State and Energy departments have been more cautious, warning, as have some of Maduro's opponents in Venezuela, that such a move could have a devastating impact on the ground.
Venezuela counts on U.S. oil sales as a major source for dwindling supplies of hard currency and uses the dollars it earns to cover food and medicine imports.
Cutting off those supplies should significantly ratchet up the pressure on Maduro but exacerbate already bad shortages of food and medicines for long-suffering Venezuelans.
The list issued Tuesday contained powerful figures in Venezuela's ruling elite, including Elías José Jaua Milano, Maduro's minister spearheading Sunday's vote, and Tibisay Lucena Ramírez, head of the electoral council that opponents have charged with fraud.
But just as significant was the decision to extend the sanctions to the military and state-run oil sector, a move potentially signaling to powerful forces in the country that they would not be immune from the response against Maduro.
Those officials included the recently named army commander Jesús Rafael Suárez Chourio and Sergio José Rivero Marcano, whose National Guard has been battling protesters. Another key name: Simón Alejandro Zerpa Delgado, a senior executive at the state-owned oil giant.
But few thought the U.S. step would prevent Sunday's vote.
"Do I think that it's going to work? I honestly don't think these kinds of sanctions usually work," said Michael Pinfold, a global fellow with the Wilson Center's Latin America program.
As pressure on Maduro continued to build, anti-government forces were staging a 48-hour strike that shut down large parts of the capital Wednesday, with a massive march on Caracas being organized for Friday or Saturday.
Faiola reported from Caracas. Rachelle Krygier in Caracas contributed to this report.