U.S. sanctions 10 more Venezuelan government leaders

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks at an Oct. 17 news conference at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks at an Oct. 17 news conference at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas. AP

Denouncing last month’s regional Venezuelan elections as irregular, the Trump administration imposed new individual sanctions Thursday against 10 Venezuelans it accused of undermining democracy, censoring the news media and engaging in the corrupt administration of government-run food programs.

The Treasury Department froze U.S. assets, banned U.S. travel and prohibited Americans from doing business with top allies of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, including his chief of staff, two sitting ministers and one of the all-powerful Constituent Assembly’s vice presidents.

“As the Venezuelan government continues to disregard the will of its people, our message remains clear: the United States will not stand aside while the Maduro regime continues to destroy democratic order and prosperity in Venezuela,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The Constituent Assembly swore in the winners of an Oct. 15 election the Treasury Department said was “marked by numerous irregularities that strongly suggest fraud” that helped Maduro’s ruling socialist party win a majority of governorships. The government ignored opposition calls for an independent audit of the results.

Thursday’s penalties bring to 40 the total number of Venezuelans sanctioned by the U.S. for undermining the South American country’s democracy — including Maduro himself, whom Mnuchin has labeled a “dictator.” All four pro-Maduro members of Venezuela’s five-member National Electoral Council are now on the list.

Sanctioned Thursday were: Elvis Amoroso, the Constituent Assembly’s second vice president; Sandra Oblitas, the National Electoral Council vice president; Socorro Hernández, member of the National Electoral Council; Carlos Quintero, alternate member of the National Electoral Council; Isaías Rodríguez, the Constituent Assembly’s former second vice president; Ernesto Villegas, culture minister; Freddy Bernal, urban agriculture minister; Jorge Márquez, presidential chief of staff; Manuel Fernández, president of state-run communications company CANTV; and Carlos Osorio, president of a transportation mission and former vice president of security and food sovereignty.

"The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing," President Donald Trump stated before the United Nations on Sept. 19, 2017. He later called on other countries to do more to address the crisis in Venezuela under the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro, which "has inflicted terrible misery and suffering on the good people of that country."

Osorio was among the Venezuelans whom Sens. Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez asked President Donald Trump to sanction in July. In 2016, auditors for the opposition-controlled National Assembly found Osorio “complicit in swindling the state of up to $573 million” through a food program, according to Treasury.

Bernal, who heads the government’s food-distribution program, was previously sanctioned in 2011 as a drug trafficker. The U.S. said he acted on behalf of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Villegas, who until last week was Venezuela’s communications minister, was formerly in charge of the state-run Venezolana de Televisión, which the U.S. said used its power to restrict the democratic electoral process. VTV acts as the government’s propaganda arm, keeping the opposition almost entirely off the air.

Earlier this year, Márquez, Maduro’s newly appointed chief of staff, ran the National Telecommunications Commission, CONATEL. He removed two Colombian TV channels and CNN en Español off the air after they were deemed too critical of the government.

Fernández, the head of telephone giant CANTV and its cellphone subsidiary, Movilnet, C.A., has “blocked multiple websites from the Venezuelan public, including social media website,” according to the U.S.

The Constituent Assembly approved legislation Wednesday prohibiting the instigation of violence or hate through television, radio or social media — an effort human rights advocates argue will criminalize dissent and peaceful protest.

Canada sanctioned 40 Venezuelans, including Maduro, in September. On Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson asked Treasury to slap sanctions on all 545 Constituent Assembly members and ban Venezuelan oil imports “until constitutional order has been restored.”

“Every day, the Maduro regime in Venezuela looks and acts more like the dictatorial Castro regime in Cuba,” Rubio said in a statement Thursday welcoming the sanctions. “The illegitimate Constituent Assembly’s recent crackdown on news media and the baseless charges against the elected Vice President of the National Assembly, Freddy Guevara, are the latest efforts by Maduro and his cronies to undermine democracy and the will of the Venezuelan people.”

The latest sanctions come two days after the Constituent Assembly took away Guevara’s immunity and barred him from leaving the country. Last week, the Maduro-stacked supreme court said it suspected Guevara of instigating unrest during months of anti-government protests earlier this year. The decision was denounced by 12 Western Hemisphere governments, including Canada and Mexico.

Venezuela Politcal Crisis
Venezuelan National Assembly Vice President Freddy Guevara speaks to reporters in Caracas on April 2. Fernando Llano AP

Guevara, the vice president of parliament, spent more than a day in hiding before taking refuge at the Chilean ambassador’s Caracas residence.

By going after Guevara, Venezuela “is pursuing yet another extreme measure to close the democratic space in Venezuela, criminalize dissent, and control information,” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Tuesday.

A Venezuelan legislator’s parliamentary immunity can be removed only by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The court, however, turned instead to the Constituent Assembly, which has virtually unfettered powers. The U.S. considers the Constituent Assembly, elected under suspected fraud, to be illegitimate, and cites its formation as proof Venezuela is now a dictatorship.

“It’s a clear, and well-deserved, tightening of the screws on the regime as it has cast off even the pretense of democracy,” said Eric Farnsworth, who worked on Latin America issues in the Clinton administration and is now Washington director of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “But it’s uncertain whether this will ultimately change the behavior in Caracas.”

Mark Feierstein, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere under President Barack Obama, cautioned that the sanctions’ goal shouldn’t just be to underscore the Trump administration’s concerns but rather to hasten a democratic transition. Absent similar moves by the European Union and other countries, or mass mobilization of people within Venezuela, these latest sanctions are unlikely to do that.

“Ultimately, the question here is, ‘Does it move the needle?’ ” Feierstein said.

In August, the U.S. imposed its first Russia-style economic sanctions against Venezuela, banning debt trades for bonds issued by the government and its state-owned oil company.

Last week, Maduro announced plans to restructure the country’s debt, a sign the government could eventually default. The collapse of Venezuela’s mismanaged, oil-dependent economy has left people short of food and medicine.

The man Maduro tasked with the debt restructuring, Vice President Tareck El Aissami, has been sanctioned by the U.S. as a drug-trafficking kingpin.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington organization focused on Latin America, questioned whether continuing to pile on individual sanctions is worthwhile.

“There is no sign that it’s been effective up to now,” he said. “It’s doubtful that these will make much of a difference while the others haven’t had any impact, as far as we know. It’s more of the same.”

Trump and his Cabinet have repeatedly warned that further sanctions against Venezuela were possible, though the harshest of all penalties — an oil ban — has yet to be seriously considered.

Ordoñez reported from Washington. Miami Herald staff writer Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.