Of the 19 signatories to the rarely used 1947 treaty, 16 countries, including the United States, voted to endorse the sanctions. Only Uruguay voted against it, while Trinidad and Tobago abstained. Cuba was absent, but it is an outcast from the Organization of American States, which sponsored the meeting.
No one was specifically named besides the reviled Maduro, but the diplomats said their vote means they will identify those deemed complicit with Maduro’s government, investigate and prosecute them, and ultimately seize their assets and sentence them to prison.
Under the treaty, all the signatories are required to share information and work together to compile a master list of former and current regime members, as well as family members, to whom sanctions would apply.
Though the diplomats stopped short of calling for military action, as the Rio Treaty would permit, they said it represents a big step in pressuring Maduro and his cronies in a way that almost a year of U.S. sanctions against more than 100 individuals have so far failed to do. For months, U.S. officials have said they believe Maduro’s government was on the brink of collapse, but he has managed to maintain the support of most of the armed forces.
“This starts defining the path forward,” said Carlos Trujillo, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, who participated in the meeting.
“Imagine the families of the accused trying to get out of the country by getting on a flight from Panama or Costa Rica,” he added. “This puts pressure on the regime it has not had for the last 10 months.”
Though the Maduro government remains recognized by the United Nations, the Organization of American States and more than 50 other countries recognize the opposition government headed by Juan Guaidó, the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly. Opposition groups allied with Guaidó will be meeting with President Trump in Washington on Wednesday.
Both the United States and envoys representing Guaidó are hoping to use the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly to put pressure on European countries to impose U.S.-like sanctions on Maduro and his associates. They believe that members of the Maduro government have used Europe as a place to hide money and protect their families.
“We think there’s something very unseemly about allowing Europe to turn into a kind of resort area for regime bigwigs and their families, who have children, wives, mistresses in Europe, bank accounts, houses,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. strategy. “The Europeans should not be permitting this.”
As U.S. sanctions have increasingly targeted Venezuela, the country’s economy has collapsed, malnutrition and disease have soared, and millions of Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries to escape poverty and starvation. So many refugees have left Venezuela that only Syrians form a bigger refugee crisis.
Monday’s vote was taken in a palatial hotel in Midtown Manhattan where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his entourage are staying. Half a block away is the office of the Venezuelan Consulate that was abandoned by Maduro government functionaries who were expelled, with the quarters given to representatives of the Guaidó government.
The consulate, apparently after being ransacked, has been repainted, and Guaidó’s envoys have hung some modest pieces of art and put a few plastic chairs in an ornate ceremonial room where officials can be interviewed before a backdrop emblazoned with the symbols of the presidency.
“The one who has closed any door for negotiation, for elections, for national unity is Maduro himself,” Julio Borges, who is Guaidó’s representative for foreign affairs and head of the delegation to New York, said Monday. “We must use all the tools we have to push him.”
Colombia has accused Venezuela of providing safe haven to “terrorists,” most of them guerrilla groups who oppose the government in Bogota.
Colombian President Iván Duque met with a group of his compatriots in the New York suburbs on Sunday, using the occasion to accuse Maduro of committing “crimes against humanity.”
“It is not only a dictatorship; it is a narco-dictatorship,” he said. “A dictatorship that has destroyed freedom of press, the institutions, has torn apart the people.”