“While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of their corruption,” Attorney General William P. Barr said.
The move came through the Justice Department, not the Treasury or State departments, the main drivers of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, with sanctions designations. U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan said the charges were based on more than a decade of work.
Analysts suggested the move was in keeping with similar efforts against countries including Iran, North Korea and China.
The United States was “clearly using law enforcement tools as part of the maximum pressure campaign,” said Joshua Glazer, a former Justice Department and National Security Council lawyer.
“This is definitely part of the maximum pressure campaign on the Maduro regime,” said Eric Lorber of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Justice Department indictments and other legal actions beyond sanctions have played a very important part in a number of ways.”
What’s the impact of the charges against Maduro?
Thursday’s criminal indictment is only the second the United States has brought against a foreign head of state. But it’s not clear whether the previous example holds any clues for future U.S. moves against Maduro.
In February 1988, federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega on drug dealing and conspiracy charges. In December 1989, President George H.W. Bush ordered troops into Panama to oust him from power; Noriega surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990.
Noriega was convicted of drug and racketeering charges in Miami federal court and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was eventually enmeshed in a prolonged legal tussle that saw him released early by the United States, extradited to France and then extradited back to Panama, where he died in 2017.
Maduro and Noriega were both Latin American strongmen and adversaries of the United States accused in large-scale drug trafficking conspiracies. But Venezuela is a far larger country than Panama, with a more formidable military, and Russian backing.
If the charges don’t immediately result in Maduro’s capture, they could be used to add further economic pressure on the country.
The evidence compiled by the Justice Department could be used in new sanctions, including possibly the State Department designation of Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism — a rare move currently applied to only North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria.
Lorber, a former undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, said it was unclear how the administration could do this when it doesn’t consider Maduro legitimate. The United States recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó, head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the nation’s rightful president.
“The United States would both be recognizing Guaidó’s government as the legitimate government while simultaneously calling the country a state sponsor of terrorism,” Lorber said.
Where else is the administration increasing maximum pressure?
Venezuela isn’t the only nation facing growing U.S. pressure while also battling covid-19. Over the past month, the Treasury also has announced new sanctions designations related to Iran, North Korea and Syria.
“The administration’s tactic of choice toward adversaries is all pressure, all the time,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The government of Iran has complained that sanctions on its economy made it difficult to gather the equipment needed to contain an outbreak that has killed more than 2,300 there.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif blamed deaths on “unlawful U.S. sanctions.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dismissed such criticism. U.S. sanctions “do not target imports of food, medicine and medical equipment, or other humanitarian goods,” he said in a statement Monday, and “Iranian documents show their health companies have been able to import testing kits.”
There are some signs of restraint in the maximum pressure campaign. Deadly attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq this month, widely seen as perpetrated by groups backed by Iran, have prompted only a muted response from the Trump administration, without the discussion of a direct strike against Iran seen only months ago.
Is humanitarian aid being offered to targets of maximum pressure?
The Trump administration has offered Iran aid as it battles the coronavirus pandemic, funneled through the Swiss government because Washington cut diplomatic relations with Tehran 40 years ago.
“The United States has offered over $100 million in medical assistance to foreign countries, including to the Iranian people,” Pompeo said this week.
Iran rejected the aid. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, said, “You could be giving medicines to Iran that spread the virus or cause it to remain permanently.”
The United States has also said it would facilitate humanitarian assistance to North Korea, which has not reported any cases of covid-19. No such offers have been made publicly to Venezuela.
At the same time, the United States has threatened to pull back aid from other countries, including $1 billion from Afghanistan, an ally, in a bid to force the government to support a future peace accord with Taliban insurgents.
Critics of maximum pressure say that by refusing to relent in exceptional circumstances as previous administrations have, the Trump administration is missing an opportunity amid the outbreak.
“At a time when our allies are looking to us for leadership, or at least partnership, on the covid-19 crisis, we're not rising to play that role,” DiMaggio said.
Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and a critic of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, said the move against Maduro wasn’t prompted by concerns about international drug trafficking but by domestic politics. Such actions are believed to be popular among the large Venezuelan and Cuban communities in the presidential battleground state of Florida, he said.
“It is very dangerous and irresponsible at the moment of the coronavirus pandemic,” Sachs wrote in an email. “The U.S. should be helping Venezuela and other countries to contain this devastating pandemic.”