The Trump administration on Tuesday warned Russia, China and “any persons” who continue supporting President Nicolás Maduro that it is prepared to penalize them as part of a new economic blockade of Venezuela.
“To both Russia and China, we say that your support to the Maduro regime is intolerable, particularly to the democratic regime that will replace Maduro,” White House national security adviser John Bolton said in a speech at a conference of international partners in Lima, Peru. The United States and others in Latin America and Europe recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president and have called for new elections.
Describing the Maduro regime as massively corrupt and responsible for “people starving in the streets” in Venezuela, Bolton said, “You have to ask yourself . . . who would support such a tyrant? Look no farther than Cuba, Russia, China and Iran.”
“We say again to Russia, and especially to those who control its finances: Do not double down on a bad bet. To China, which is already desperate to recoup its financial losses,” including billions in loans to Venezuela, “the quickest route to getting repaid is to support a new legitimate government,” he said.
In Caracas, Maduro’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, denounced what he said was an attempt to “intimidate” the Maduro regime and called President Trump “a racist and supremacist tycoon.”
In Cuba, one of Maduro’s closest allies, President Miguel Díaz-Canel said the administration had resorted to “cowardly” action because it was “frustrated in the face of the bravery and resistance of the Venezuelan people.”
Russia and China made no initial comment.
Trump signed an executive order late Monday that, Bolton said, imposes “full blocking sanctions on assets of the government of Venezuela within our jurisdiction . . . freezes all of the Venezuelan government’s assets, and prohibits transactions with it, unless specifically exempted.”
“Critically,” he said, the order “also authorizes sanctions on foreign persons who provide support or goods or services to any designated person, including the government of Venezuela.”
It also prohibits visas for government officials and other regime supporters, many of whom have already been barred from the United States.
The White House issued a statement Tuesday repeating that “all options are on the table” for dealing with Venezuela, a suggestion that it is still considering the use of the military to achieve its goals. Pentagon officials have resisted any military involvement, which is also opposed by most Latin American governments.
The Lima meeting includes representatives of more than 50 countries that have declared Maduro illegitimate and recognized Guaidó.
The new embargo follows months of escalating U.S. sanctions, including a blanket freeze on all official Venezuelan assets in the United States and a prohibition on any transactions with Maduro’s government.
The embargo comes at a time when Venezuela is already collapsing. Oil production has fallen to levels not seen since the 1940s, due to long-term mismanagement but also because of a ban on shipments to the United States imposed this year that robbed Venezuela of its largest single source of hard currency.
More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled, most of them into neighboring South American countries. In addition to reporting severe shortages of food and medicine, the United Nations reported last month that thousands of Venezuelans have been victims of “torture and ill-treatment, sexual violence, and killings and enforced disappearance.”
In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday night, Trump said the freezing of assets was necessary “in light of the continued usurpation of power by the illegitimate Nicolás Maduro regime, as well as the regime’s human rights abuses, arbitrary arrest and detention of Venezuelan citizens, curtailment of free press, and ongoing attempts to undermine” Guaidó.
Previous U.S. sanctions have blocked vessels transporting oil between Venezuela and Cuba, which supports Venezuela’s security services. Oil export sanctions have also affected the few remaining U.S. companies operating in Venezuela, including Chevron. Last month, the administration extended until October a waiver of its ban on dealings with PDVSA, the state-run oil company, for Chevron and a handful of U.S. oil services companies.
It was unclear whether the broad new sanctions eliminate that waiver. Ray Fohr, external affairs adviser at Chevron’s corporate headquarters, said Tuesday that “we are reviewing the executive order.”
China has extended massive loans to Maduro, as has Russia, which has provided credit in exchange for ownership of parts of Venezuela’s energy assets including oil and natural gas fields. Russia has also been Venezuela’s principal arms supplier.
The near-bankrupt government has sold off gold — much of it to Turkey — and other assets in an effort to remain afloat but has nowhere near the resources required to confront serious structural problems, including nationwide power and water shortages. Venezuelans are also facing record hyperinflation that has broken supply chains and made basic goods increasingly difficult to afford.
An estimated 5,500 Venezuelan migrants continue to pour out of the country each day, many of them so undernourished that aid groups are increasingly concerned about the onset of near famine conditions within Venezuela.
Since a failed attempt to oust Maduro in April, the opposition has sought to regroup. Several rounds of Norway-sponsored political dialogue with the government have taken place, with Maduro’s opponents demanding presidential elections and the creation of conditions for a free and fair vote.
Maduro’s fate is one of the key sticking point in the talks, which continued last week in Barbados. Some have argued that he could remain in office, or at least stay in the country, while new elections are held and could even run. The Trump administration and many others have scoffed at that notion.
But the administration appears frustrated by Maduro’s staying power despite heavy pressure, and the new blockade appears to be yet another attempt to heighten the cost of his tenure and perhaps force deeper cracks within his inner circle.
The new U.S. action puts Venezuela on par with Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria, the other countries under a similar full embargo.
In his speech, Bolton compared the measure to other asset freezes against governments in the Western Hemisphere, including the Cuba embargo, which was first imposed in 1962. Similar, temporary sanctions were imposed against the Panamanian government of Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1988 and against Nicaragua in 1985.
“It worked in Panama; it worked in Nicaragua once, and it will work there again; and it will work in Venezuela and Cuba,” Bolton said.
The Cuba embargo has thus far failed to dislodge the revolutionary government that took over the island in 1959. In Nicaragua, strict sanctions were accompanied by an unsuccessful, U.S.-funded and promoted war by opposition “contras” against a leftist government that was defeated at the polls in 1990, reelected in 2006 and remains in power.
In Panama, Noriega was finally dislodged by a U.S. military invasion in 1989.