Trump seems to encourage Venezuela military coup amid fresh sanctions

President Donald Trump on Tuesday appeared to encourage a military coup in Venezuela, saying the “horrible” socialist government represented a threat to its own citizens.

Speaking in New York ahead of a bilateral meeting with Colombian President Iván Duque, Trump questioned the bravery of Venezuela’s military but suggested they could easily overthrow President Nicolás Maduro amid an economic and humanitarian crisis.

“It’s a regime that frankly could be toppled very quickly by the military if the military decides to do that,” Trump said.

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He also brought up an August 4 incident where a drone exploded at a military rally in Caracas, as Maduro was speaking, sending troops scattering.

“You saw how the military spread as soon as they heard a bomb go off way above their head,” Trump said. “That military was running for cover. That’s not good.”

Trump didn’t rule out U.S. intervention in the South American nation but said he wouldn’t telegraph his actions, as he often accused his predecessor, President Barack Obama, of doing.

“I don’t like to talk about military. Why should I talk to you about military?” he said. “Obama — he used to say exactly what he was going to do, and then it would be 10 times tougher to do it. I don’t do that.”

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza fired back, saying it was “grotesque” for Trump to talk about “coups and assassinations” at the United Nations.

“Of course,” he said, “because it isn’t his family that’s going to die, it’s easy for [Trump] to promote violence and the assassination of leaders in a country.”

The provocative statements come as Washington continued to squeeze Venezuela Tuesday, hitting Maduro’s wife and other members of his inner circle with sanctions as a group of U.S. legislators introduced a bill that could significantly increase pressure on the cash-strapped socialist administration.

The U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said it had imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s first lady, Cilia Flores, along with Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez and Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez.

It also said it had seized a Florida-based Gulfstream jet worth $20 million that belongs to Rafael Sarria. U.S. officials had previously identified him as a frontman for Diosdado Cabello, the president of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly and one of the country’s most powerful men.

As he announced the sanctions at the United Nations in New York, Trump blamed the “Maduro regime and its Cuban sponsors” for causing a humanitarian crisis that has forced more than 2 million Venezuelans to flee in recent years.

“Not long ago Venezuela was one of the richest countries on earth,” Trump said. “Today socialism has bankrupted the oil-rich nation and driven its people into abject poverty…Virtually everywhere socialism or communism has been tried, it has produced suffering, corruption and decay.”

Arreaza said the latest round of sanctions, particularly against Flores, were a sign of Washington’s “ridiculous obsession” with Venezuela.

“What sense does it make to sanction the first lady?” he asked. “Can you imagine if a country were to sanction Melania [Trump]?”

At a parallel event in New York, Vice President Mike Pence announced more than $48 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Venezuelans affected by the migration crisis. The funding will help provide Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Brazil and elsewhere with aid, including food, water and shelter. The U.S. has pledged more than $95 million in humanitarian assistance for Venezuelans since July 2016, according to the State Department.

Also on Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators including Marco Rubio, R-FL, and Bill Nelson, D-FL, introduced the “Venezuelan Humanitarian Relief, Reconstruction and Rule of Law Act of 2018.”

The bill calls for increased U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan officials and requires the State Department to work with other countries in Latin America to develop their own sanctions programs. It also would earmark an additional $40 million in humanitarian aid to deal with the Venezuelan crisis and $15 million to support “democratic actors and civil society” in the country.

“As the corrupt Maduro regime adopts a Cuba-style dictatorship and engages in crimes against humanity, including the use of forced starvation against its citizens for political coercion, it is vital for the United States and our partners to provide direct humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan people,” Rubio said in a statement. “Maduro’s socialist legacy has devastated a once-rich nation and vibrant economy.”

Washington has sanctioned more than 60 current and former officials since 2015, including Maduro last year. In 2017, the Trump administration went a step further, imposing additional financial sanctions that have made it difficult for Venezuela to refinance or borrow more money. Maduro has blamed those measures for the country’s economic woes, including food and medicine shortages.

Venezuela sees the sanctions as part of a broader campaign — including coup attempts and assassination plots — to topple the socialist administration. Trump’s talk of military coups is likely to reinforce the perception in Caracas.

Asked how dangerous Maduro’s regime is to national security, Trump responded: “Well it’s dangerous for their security. It’s dangerous for their people’s security.”

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But the U.S. government said the new sanctions are aimed at dismantling the network of corrupt officials who are bleeding the country at the expense of its citizens.

“President Maduro relies on his inner circle to maintain his grip on power, as his regime systematically plunders what remains of Venezuela’s wealth. We are continuing to designate loyalists who enable Maduro to solidify his hold on the military and the government while the Venezuelan people suffer,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “Treasury will continue to impose a financial toll on those responsible for Venezuela’s tragic decline, and the networks and frontmen they use to mask their illicit wealth.”

Also Tuesday, Treasury identified five companies and people related to Sarria, who it claims is still working as a frontman for Cabello, a powerful government insider.

Among those companies are Venezuela-based Agencia Vehiculos Especiales Rurales y Urbanos (AVERUCA), Quiana Trading Limited, in the British Virgin Islands, and Panazeate SL, based in Valencia, Spain. The order also named Jose Omar Paredes, the chief pilot of AVERUCA, and Edgar Alberto Sarria, the director of Quiana Trading and CEO of Panazeate.

The sanctions bar U.S. citizens and residents from doing business with people on the list and freeze their U.S.-based assets.

In its statement Tuesday, Treasury said, “The United States has made it clear that we will consider lifting sanctions for persons...who take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order, refuse to take part in human rights abuses, speak out against abuses committed by the government, and combat corruption in Venezuela.”

McClatchy reporter Franco Ordoñez contributed from Washington.

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