U.S. sanctions 13 more Venezuelans ahead of showdown vote

A demonstrator waves a flag Monday in Caracas with the the crossed out image of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during a tribute to those killed during protests against the government.
A demonstrator waves a flag Monday in Caracas with the the crossed out image of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during a tribute to those killed during protests against the government. AP

The Trump administration sanctioned 13 Venezuelans tied to President Nicolás Maduro's government Wednesday, four days before the South American nation plans to hold a vote that the U.S. says will turn Maduro’s rule into a dictatorship.

The U.S. froze assets and banned travel visas for the 13 individuals, who are high-ranking current or former leaders of the government, the military, the country’s state oil producer and the agency that controls its currency-exchange rate, in an attempt to continue punishing Maduro loyalists for undemocratic, violent and corrupt actions.

Venezuela should expect further sanctions if it moves forward with Sunday’s vote to create a national constituent assembly, the White House said Wednesday afternoon, confirming the list of names first reported by the Miami Herald.

“Anyone elected to the national constituent assembly should know that their role in undermining democratic processes and institutions in Venezuela could expose them to potential U.S. sanctions,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

A senior White House official told reporters the administration still hopes Maduro will change his mind and call off the election. The latest sanctions, however, authorized under an existing executive order, indicate little progress has been made in negotiations in Venezuela aimed at securing a delay or cancelation of the vote.

Eight of the names listed Wednesday coincide with a list of 10 Venezuelans that U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., sent President Donald Trump on Tuesday suggesting possible sanction targets.

The Trump administration sorted the sanctioned individuals into three groups:

▪ Four current and former government leaders involved in pursuing the creation of the national constituent assembly or undermining democracy and human rights: Tibisay Lucena, president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council; Elías Jaua, head of the presidential commission for the national constituent assembly who served vice president from 2010-12 and as foreign affairs minister from 2013-14; Tarek William Saab, government ombudsman, and Iris Varela, member of the national constituent assembly commission and former penitentiary minister.

▪ Five current and former military leaders or heads of agencies linked to violence and repression: Néstor Reverol, minister for interior, justice and peace; Carlos Alfredo Pérez Ampueda, director of the Bolivarian National Police; Sergio Rivero Marcano, commander general of the Bolivarian National Guard; Jesús Suárez Chourio, commander of the Bolivarian Army, and Franklin García Duque, former director of the Bolivarian National Police.

▪ Four current and former officials involved in corruption: Rocco Albisini, president of the national center for foreign trade, known as CENCOEX; Alejandro Fleming, former CENCOEX president who served as vice-minister for North America and Europe from 2015-16; Simón Zerpa, vice president of finance of state oil producer PDVSA, and Carlos Erick Malpica Flores, former PDVSA finance vice president and former national treasurer.

“The sanctions from the Empire are a recognition of my 34 years of struggle for the national sovereignty, for the poor of this earth,” Jaua wrote in Spanish on Twitter. “We shall overcome!”

Varela took a more colorful approach: “Go to hell, you shitty yankees,” she captioned a Twitter photo of herself, smiling and raising her middle finger.

Not included from Menendez and Rubio’s list were Carlos Alberto Osorio Zambrano, head of the strategic region of integral defense, and Rodolfo Clemente Marco Torres, a brigadier general. It’s unclear why they were left out, but Rubio and Menendez wrote Tuesday they planned to offer more names to the administration, which last week said it already had a “robust” list of potential targets.

The sanctions won praise from members of Congress, including Cuban-American Republicans from Miami have been closely involved in pushing for action against Maduro’s government, which they see as an extension of Raúl Castro’s totalitarian regime in Cuba.

“Only by ensuring that those who violate the human rights of Venezuelans are not able to enter the United States or access their money and properties in our country can we send a clear message that we will not tolerate the continued abuse happening in Venezuela,” Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

To keep pressure on Maduro and his close supporters — and perhaps create rifts among them — more sanctions could be imposed even ahead of Sunday’s vote for a national constituent assembly that would rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. The new constitution would effectively remove all power from the democratically elected National Assembly controlled by Maduro opponents.

After the Venezuelan opposition held a massive symbolic vote rejecting Maduro last week, Trump warned the White House would take “strong and swift economic actions” against “a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator.” White House officials reiterated Wednesday they are keeping all options open but declined to offer specifics.

The most drastic Trump administration move after the vote would be to escalate sanctions from individuals to Venezuela’s oil industry, by banning oil imports from the No. 3 supplier to the U.S. But some regional players, including the head of the Organization of American States, oppose an oil ban — and Rubio and others who have devoted time to persuading Latin American leaders to pressure Maduro might prefer to keep their coalition from splitting over oil sanctions.

Instead, the U.S. could opt to restrict financial transactions with Venezuela, an approach that would try to limit the ability of Maduro’s government to borrow to pay off interest on the country’s debt.

Nearly four months of street protests against Maduro have left more than 100 Venezuelans dead.

The U.S. began sanctioning members of the Venezuelan government in 2015, accusing them of ties to drug trafficking. In February of this year, the Trump administration added Vice President Tareck El Aissami, calling him a drug kingpin. On Wednesday, a senior White House official for the first time characterized El Aissami’s assets to be worth “hundreds of millions of dollars” — more than the U.S. expected — “stashed away in bank accounts all over the world.”

In May, the U.S. also penalized eight Venezuelan Supreme Court judges after the Maduro-stacked court try to overtake the National Assembly’s power.

On Tuesday, top Venezuelan diplomats accused Rubio and the CIA of secretly plotting to overthrow Maduro’s government. CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in a recent speech he was “hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela and we, the CIA is doing its best to understand the dynamic there.”

On Wednesday, the senior White House official characterized Pompeo’s opinion as his own — but reiterated the shares Pompeo’s underlying worry.

“We are very concerned about the rapid erosion of democracy and the move toward dictatorship by President Maduro,” the official said.

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