U.S. sanctions Venezuelan Supreme Court judges over National Assembly power grab

Woman stands up to police tank in Venezuela

Video captures the moment a woman refused to move out of the way of a police tank during a violent protest in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on April 19, 2017.
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Video captures the moment a woman refused to move out of the way of a police tank during a violent protest in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on April 19, 2017.

The Trump administration sanctioned eight Venezuelan Supreme Court judges Thursday, freezing their assets and banning them from travel to the U.S. as punishment for stripping the Venezuelan Congress of all powers earlier this year, a decision the court later reversed amid widespread international outcry.

The sanctions are the first unrelated to drug trafficking imposed by the Trump administration against high-ranking members of the Venezuelan government. They are intended to continue to isolate the embattled administration of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, which has been besieged by weeks of escalating protests following an economic collapse that has left Venezuelans tired, poor and hungry.

“The United States is not going to allow those who impede democracy or violate human rights to go unpunished,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who pushed for the sanctions, told the Miami Herald. He decried some of the judges by name Wednesday on the Senate floor, calling them “puppets who do [Maduro’s] bidding.”

The court, stacked with Maduro loyalists, declared in March it would assume all legislative functions from the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which had been deemed illegitimate after being held in contempt of previous court rulings. Denounced by the opposition and international community as an undemocratic power grab, the court’s decision was undone days later by the judges themselves, under apparent pressure from Maduro.

A group of anti-government protesters force a police tank's retreat after a confrontation on a highway in Caracas, Venezuela on May 1, 2017.

Even if reversed, the decision was only the latest in a series of rulings that undermined the legislative branch’s authority, senior Trump administration officials told reporters Thursday. One of them referred to “the rupture of democratic norms.”

“They have made a mockery of the separation of powers, and they have denied the Venezuelan people the right to shape their future,” the official said.

Rubio’s office worked behind the scenes with the White House and National Security Council on the sanctions, which are intended to continue to punish Venezuela’s government but not its people or its economy. The U.S.’s approach has been to back civil society and call for national elections and the release of political prisoners — while pushing other countries in the region to do the same.

Targeted by the Treasury Department sanctions are Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno and the seven principal members of the court’s Constitutional Chamber: Juan José Mendoza, Arcadio de Jesús Delgado, Gladys Gutiérrez, Carmen Zuleta de Merchán, Luis Fernando Damiani Bustillos, Lourdes Benicia Suárez Anderson and Calixto Ortega.

The sanctions were authorized under a March 2015 executive order signed by then-President Barack Obama, who at the time targeted seven Venezuelan government officials, citing eroded human-rights protections, political persecutions and violence in response to opposition protests. Congress passed legislation seeking sanctions in December 2014, and extended them for another three years last July.

Thursday’s announcement was met with resounding praise from Miami Republicans in Congress, who along with Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, have prodded the Trump administration — as they did the Obama administration — to take action. On Wednesday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a Rubio friend, brought up Venezuela for the first time during a closed-door Security Council meeting.

“It’s a step in the right direction to holding the Maduro regime accountable and sends a strong message to the people of Venezuela that we have not given up on their aspirations for a return to a true democratic order,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. (In 2015, Maduro labeled her, Rubio and other U.S. lawmakers “terrorists” and banned their entry into Venezuela.)

Miami is home to the largest Venezuelan community in the U.S., and Venezuelan government officials are known to keep properties and bank accounts in Florida, and frequently travel to Miami and Orlando on vacation. Though the U.S. won’t disclose how many assets, if any, the judges might have in the country, the sanctions affect financial transactions that pass through the U.S. even if they originate in foreign banks.

More than 40 people have died over the past six weeks as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets.

Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump hosted Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House and spoke about Venezuela, an issue the two had already previously discussed by phone.

The South American country has “been unbelievably poorly run for a long period of time, and hopefully that will change,” Trump said after the meeting, without mentioning sanctions. “Right now, what’s happening is really a disgrace to humanity.”

Trump US Colombia (1)
President Donald Trump meets with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in the Oval Office on Thursday. Trump said they’d talk about Venezuela. Susan Walsh AP

At Rubio’s request, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence sat down in February with Lilian Tintori, the wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, who has been in jail for three years. Trump has since cited that meeting when bringing up Venezuela to Western Hemisphere leaders, according to a source familiar with the conversations.

Also in February, the Treasury Department sanctioned Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who remains most senior government official targeted by the U.S. After a years-long investigation, the feds identified El Aissami as a cocaine-trafficking kingpin and froze assets belonging to his front man — including several companies registered in Miami and a private plane.

El Aissami called the drug accusations a “grotesque lie.”

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