U.S. slaps sanctions on Maduro and labels him a ‘dictator’

In this photo released by the Venezuelan government, President Nicolás Maduro shows his ballot Sunday after casting a vote for a constitutional assembly in Caracas.
In this photo released by the Venezuelan government, President Nicolás Maduro shows his ballot Sunday after casting a vote for a constitutional assembly in Caracas. Miraflores press office via AP

The Trump administration promised to punish Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro — and now, it has.

After what was widely seen as a fraudulent vote that usurped power from Venezuela’s democratically elected lawmakers, Washington froze Maduro’s assets, banned him from the United States and prohibited Americans from doing any personal business with him.

“Maduro is not just a bad leader: He is now a dictator,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said from the White House briefing room Monday, reading a statement from President Donald Trump.

But the White House stopped short of its most serious potential punishment — banning Venezuelan oil imports, a move that could have accelerated the South American country’s economic collapse and deepened its humanitarian crisis.

Other U.S. economic sanctions are still expected, part of a series of escalating measures after Sunday’s vote proceeded despite warnings from the international community.

For now, Maduro becomes the fourth head of state directly sanctioned by the U.S. — after Bashar Assad of Syria, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

“He joins a very exclusive club,” McMaster quipped. He declared the Venezuelan vote, which was marred by violence, a “sham election.”

Maduro fired back on Monday night, aiming at Trump’s well-known sore spot — his popular-vote loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“In the U.S., it’s possible to win the presidency after getting three million fewer votes than the other candidate. Tremendous democracy!” Maduro crowed on Venezuelan television.

“I don't obey imperial orders,” Maduro added. “I'm against the Ku Klux Klan that governs the White House, and I'm proud to feel that way.”

Trump promised “strong and swift” actions ahead of the election for a new, all-powerful constituent assembly with the power to dissolve the opposition-held parliament, effectively wiping out the remnants of Venezuela’s democracy. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Monday the U.S. would continue to consider its options, including an oil ban. Sources familiar with the plans said an embargo, a last-straw measure, is off the table for now.

“Our objective is not to do anything that hurts the people of Venezuela,” Mnuchin said, calling Sunday’s election “illegitimate.”

Mnuchin reiterated the threat to sanction all 545 constituent assembly members once they are seated. That would include Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, and powerful congressman Diosdado Cabello, as well as lowly socialist party members with no U.S. finances. The new assembly is supposed to take over in the next two days.

Mnuchin wouldn’t say what assets, if any, Maduro might hold. The U.S. has estimated Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who was sanctioned as a drug kingpin in February, has foreign assets of roughly $500 million.

The sources familiar with the plans said the U.S. is considering Russian-type financial sanctions to limit U.S. companies from investing or providing loans to the Venezuelan government. The sanctions could even be retroactive, affecting Goldman Sachs’ widely criticized May purchase of $2.8 billion worth of bonds issued by Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, according to a former U.S. official who is familiar with the discussions.

The Trump administration wants to allow the U.S. to continue importing Venezuelan crude oil for refining, though it may prohibit U.S. companies from providing debt equity or any kind of investment to PDVSA. Nevertheless, a main objective of the National Security Council, State Department and Treasury leaders is to limit the damage to U.S. companies.

“They could shield U.S. companies to a certain extent, but what you’re essentially doing is turning off the Venezuela economy,” the former U.S. official said.

The Venezuelan government said 8 million people, or nearly 42 percent of the electorate, voted Sunday, a figure forcefully disputed by Maduro’s opposition and independent observers, who estimated fewer than half as many ballots were cast. Streets were mostly empty Sunday, and most polling places were deserted in a country where turnout typically tops 70 percent. The government disallowed any internationally recognized observers from monitoring the polls.

“It’s when imperialism challenges us that we prove ourselves worthy of the blood of the liberators that runs through the veins of men, women, children and young people,” Maduro said shortly after midnight, as he celebrated the purported results and claimed a mandate to rewrite Venezuela’s 1999 constitution.

Florida lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has the White House’s ear on Venezuela, have pushed hard for penalties against an authoritarian government they see as increasingly resembling Cuba’s. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen continued to urge oil sanctions Monday.

“It’s time that we consider cutting the imports of Venezuelan oil,” Nelson said on the Senate floor. “We are now dealing with a Cuban-style dictator.”

Not all in Congress were supportive.

“The sanctions authorized by the Treasury Department today will do nothing to help the people and economy of Venezuela,” said Rep. Ro Khanna of California, one of eight liberal Democrats who have called for mediation instead of sanctions. “Rather, they will stoke the fire of an illegitimate government even further and put the country on the path to more uncertainty.”

Sunday’s election turned deadly as government forces confronted demonstrators who tried to protest en masse against Maduro, an unpopular leftist who four years ago succeeded the late President Hugo Chávez. At least 16 people were reported dead in a 24-hour period beginning Saturday night. Opposition leaders called for protests Monday.

Roadblocks from Sunday still stood Monday in eastern Caracas, an opposition stronghold. Only a few people heeded leaders’ call to protest at noon, though several thousand people attended a subdued afternoon demonstration.

Seguimos,” read a banner. We carry on.

“Now it’s clear before the whole world that this is a dictatorship that imposes its will behind the backs of the Venezuelan people,” said protester Rosana Faría, 53. “One could feel very sad, but no, the opposite. We can reconfirm that we’re right.”

With oil prices plunging, Venezuela’s mismanaged economy has collapsed, leading to rampant violence, food shortages and a political crisis that began in April when the Supreme Court, stacked by Maduro loyalists, tried to strip the democratically elected National Assembly’s power. About 120 people, most of them young protesters, have died since.

The U.S. saw Sunday’s election as illegitimate because voters weren’t asked if they wanted a constituent assembly in the first place, as required by the constitution. About 7.5 million Venezuelans rejected a constituent assembly in a symbolic vote organized by the opposition earlier this month.

Last week, Treasury slapped sanctions on 13 Venezuelans tied to Maduro’s government, including Tibisay Lucena, the National Electoral Council president who announced Sunday’s questionable results. International organizations and other Latin American countries condemned the election in an effort to pressure Maduro to call it off. He didn’t.

By Sunday, a slew of countries, including Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Peru and Spain, had disavowed the new assembly. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the U.S. would the same. State-run Venezuelan television noted the support of Cuba, Nicaragua and Russia, and spent most of Monday flashing the purported vote total — 8,089,320 — on its screen.

The U.S. decided not to pursue an oil embargo in part because that might alienate regional partners pressuring Maduro to negotiate a peaceful exit from power. Some members of Congress have argued a ban would raise U.S. gas prices or lead to an uncontrollable Venezuelan collapse that the U.S. would be asked to clean up.

“I hope to God they’re thinking through that stuff,” said Juan Gonzalez, a deputy assistant secretary of state under former President Barack Obama. “That alone may be enough to dissuade the U.S. government from taking such a drastic and heavy approach.”

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, said the administration must be careful not to overreact, but also not be too cautious.

“In the passion of the moment, sometimes it’s easier to take steps that have unintended consequences,” he said. “But on the flip side, it’s very clear without U.S. leadership it’s a lot less likely that other countries will take steps on their own.”

Ordoñez reported from Washington, as did McClatchy correspondent Alex Daugherty. Cody Weddle contributed reporting from Caracas.