In its ongoing attempt to fracture Venezuela’s hard-pressed government, the U.S. placed financial sanctions Wednesday on eight allies of President Nicolás Maduro involved in creating a newly inaugurated legislative superbody that the international community has decried as an affront to democracy.
The penalties, imposed most notably on the brother of the late President Hugo Chávez, are still far short of the broad economic sanctions President Donald Trump threatened ahead of the creation of Venezuela’s new national constituent assembly Friday, which led the U.S. and other countries to denounce Maduro’s rule as a dictatorship.
But the White House’s incremental approach has won praise from Latin American leaders, Maduro’s political opponents and foreign policy experts who expect the U.S. to move toward more significant sanctions, especially if sanctions are met with regional support.
The Trump administration faces sustained pressure to keep to its word, particularly from Miami Republicans who have adopted the Venezuela cause as their own.
“The time has now come for the president to act on his promise to impose significant economic sanctions on the illegitimate Maduro dictatorship,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement.
On Wednesday, the Treasury Department froze U.S. assets, banned U.S. travel and barred Americans from doing business with eight current and former Maduro administration members, including a sitting governor, a federal agency chief and a member of the country’s elections authority, which is suspected of engaging in massive fraud in the July 30 vote for constituent assembly members.
Also targeted were a leader of Maduro’s security forces, who shoved the president of parliament out of the building in June, and an assembly delegate who, along with his immediate family, has owned property in South Florida.
“President Maduro swore in this illegitimate constituent assembly to further entrench his dictatorship, and continues to tighten his grip on the country,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
The eight people will join Maduro, Vice President Tareck El Aissami and 20 other current and former members of the Venezuelan government, military and judiciary who have been sanctioned as the oil-rich country’s democracy crumbles. The pace of sanctions has quickened after four months of deadly street unrest following an economic collapse that resulted in widespread food and medicine shortages.
The newly sanctioned Venezuelans are: Adán Chávez, brother of the late president and former governor of the state of Barinas; Gov. Francisco Ameliach of the state of Carabobo, a leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV); Tania D’Amelio Cardiet, member of the National Electoral Council; Hermann Escarrá, constitutional attorney and constituent assembly delegate; Urban Agriculture Minister Erika Farías; Bolivarian National Guard Col. Bladimir Lugo Armas, head of legislative palace security accused of “several acts of violence” against opposition lawmakers in parliament; Carmen Meléndez Rivas, constituent assembly delegate, and Ramón Darío Vivas Velasco, constituent assembly delegate and PSUV leader.
Escarrá and members of his immediate family have long been a presence in South Florida.
Escarrá’s daughter, Oasis Escarrá Muñoz, paid $650,000 for a two-bedroom Miami condo overlooking Biscayne Bay in 2015, Miami-Dade County property records show. No mortgage was recorded with the purchase. Local Venezuelans staged a protest outside the apartment last year.
In 1996, Escarrá and his wife, Oasis Lis Muñoz de Escarrá, bought a Pompano Beach country club condo for $82,000. Court records show the unit was later foreclosed on and sold. The couple also bought a single-family home in Coconut Creek for $244,000 in 1999, selling it at a slight mark-up three years later.
The Escarrá family also started several Florida corporations, including a now-defunct organic juice business. Escarrá himself was reportedly spotted at a North Miami Mercedes-Benz dealership in April.
The White House has been pleased so far with its individual sanctions, intended to splinter Maduro’s socialist party circle, and has been focused on garnering international support for additional actions.
“It’s hurting them where it hurts the most: their pockets,” Carlos Díaz-Rosillo, White House director of policy and interagency coordination, told the Miami Herald in a recent interview. “The menu of options that we have includes other types of sanctions, but what we use really depends on what the government of Venezuela does.”
On Tuesday, 17 countries including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Mexico met on an emergency basis in Lima and formally condemned the “breakdown of democratic order” in Venezuela, saying they would not recognize any actions taken by the “illegitimate” constituent assembly.
“What we have in Venezuela is a dictatorship,” Peruvian Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Luna said, deploying unusually harsh language for one Latin American government addressing another.
A senior White House official called Tuesday’s signed Lima Declaration “a critical and almost historic moment for the region to come together.” It came four days after Latin American trade bloc Mercosur indefinitely suspended Venezuela’s membership.
“These extremist forces intend to impose a policy of aggression, of threats, against all of Latin America and the Caribbean,” Maduro said in a Tuesday meeting in Caracas of the regional ALBA bloc, comprising Venezuela’s leftist allies, such as Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua. “Here is Venezuela, which will never give in.”
That the U.S. didn’t participate in the Lima meeting only gave the declaration more credibility, said Francisco Monaldi, a fellow in Latin American Energy Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
“We want hemispheric efforts that are not perceived as a USA-Venezuela confrontation, as President Maduro has always tried to portray it,” Monaldi told reporters in a call organized by the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and Global Energy Center. “It’s very important that some very significant countries in the region have taken the lead.”
Monaldi and David Mortlock, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, released a report Wednesday examining possible U.S. economic sanctions against Venezuela, including expanding individual sanctions against executives from the state-run oil company, PDVSA, limiting PDVSA financing or an outright ban on oil exports or imports.
They recommended a gradual approach, as the Trump administration has been pursuing, preferably adopted with support from Europe and Latin America, and said the U.S. should offer an accompanying humanitarian-aid package to limit repercussions on the Venezuelan people.
“There are many incremental steps between those we’ve identified in this paper and the authority the president has,” said Mortlock, a former director for international economic affairs at the White House National Security Council. “All of these options can be rolled out in a way to minimize the negative impact on the U.S. economy and on U.S. businesses and on the Venezuelan people.”
The U.S. and its allies have maintained Venezuela’s rightful legislature is the opposition-held parliament. The new assembly held session in parliament’s chambers Tuesday and passed a decree declaring its decisions will supersede those of any other branch of government.
The assembly, tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution, was installed Friday. It began wielding its virtually unlimited powers Saturday, dismissing attorney general Luisa Ortega, who was investigating the government for election fraud, corruption and human-rights abuses. The Treasury Department cited Ortega’s ouster as one of the actions prompting its latest sanctions.
The Trump administration had threatened to sanction all 545 assembly delegates. But many are lowly socialist party members, including students, with no public profile to speak of. Still unsanctioned are the biggest names in the assembly, including President Delcy Rodríguez, top deputies Aristóbulo Istúriz and Isaías Rodríguez, powerful delegate Diosdado Cabello and delegate Cilia Flores, who is Maduro’s wife.
The White House declined to offer a reason.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Monaldi’s name.
Miami Herald staff writer Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.