The U.S. government announced sanctions against 13 current and former senior Venezuelan government officials as the Trump administration ratchets up pressure on what it calls "bad actors" in the increasingly ostracized oil-rich South American nation.
The announcement comes as Venezuela is due to hold controversial elections on Sunday to bypass the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
Wednesday's sanctions were part of "a steady drum beat" targeting individuals involved in "massive" corruption, human rights abuses and anti-democratic actions such as Sunday's constituent assembly elections, senior administration officials told reporters on a White House conference call on Wednesday afternoon.
But some critics of the Venezuelan government say the sanctions fail to target the main culprits of Venezuela's corrupt and increasingly undemocratic socialist regime led by President Nicolás Maduro. Nor was it clear that the sanctions would deter the Maduro government from going ahead with Sunday's elections.
Indeed, it appeared to have the immediate opposite effect. Late Wednesday, a Maduro spoke at a campaign-style rally for Sunday's vote, broadcast on state TV, and congratulated the 13 sanctioned officials for their patriotism, awarding them symbolic replicas of the sword of independence hero, Simon Bolivar.
The Trump administration is believed to be considering prohibiting Venezuelan oil imports, but there was no announcement on that during Wednesday's call with reporters. However, the officials said "all options are still on the table" and Maduro could expect new measures if Sunday's elections go ahead.
Heading the list of Venezuelans who will see their U.S. assets frozen and travel visas banned is Tibisay Lucena, president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council. The list also includes several members of the Venezuelan military. However, it does not include Diosdado Cabello, a military officer and member of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, or United Nations ambassador and former oil minister Rafael Ramírez.
The U.S. has already sanctioned other high-level Venezuelans after former President Barack Obama signed an executive order in March 2015 targeting allegedly corrupt officials whose actions were undermining democratic rule. In February, the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of playing a major role in international drug trafficking.
Then in May, the Treasury Department added eight Venezuelan Supreme Court judges to the list, after the court stripped the National Assembly of its power.
Senior administration officials said Wednesday that as a sign of the rampant corruption in Venezuela the sanctions against El Aissami had uncovered larger assets than expected, amounting to "hundreds of millions of dollars ... stashed away in bank accounts all over the world.”
It was that decision to bypass the National Assembly that sparked angry street protests that have continued on a near-daily basis for months, leaving more than 100 dead.
Besides Lucena, the other nine names suggested by Menendez and Rubio are: national civil rights ombudsman Tarek William Saab; former treasurer Carlos Erick Malpica; army commander Jesús Suárez Chourio; national police chief Carlos Alfredo Pérez; former prison director Maria Iris Varela; the vice president of finance for the state oil company, PDVSA, Simón Zerpa; former vice president and foreign minister, Elías Jaua; minister for interior relations and justice, Néstor Reverol; former vice-minister for North America and Europe, Alejandro Fleming, National Guard commander, Sergio Rivero Marcano, National Police director, Franklin García Duque, and a top trade official, Rocco Albisini.
This weekend, Maduro is holding elections for a handpicked constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. U.S. officials say the July 30 elections are the latest attempt to usurp power from the democratically elected National Assembly, which is controlled by opposition parties.
On Wednesday, the senior administration officials urged Maduro not to go through with Sunday's election, warning that anyone elected to the constituent assembly could also face future U.S. sanctions.
U.S. officials blame the Maduro government for the country's slide into political and economic chaos and ruin after almost two decades of autocratic socialist rule. The recent weave of protests have resulted in more than 4,000 arrest and 430 political prisoners, more than the other countries in the hemisphere together, the officials said.
"We are very concerned about the rapid erosion of democracy and the move towards dictatorship by President Maduro. We see July 30th as a critical line which if crossed could be the end of democracy in Venezuela," one of the U.S. officials said.
Trump has warned the White House would take “strong and swift economic actions” against Maduro if he goes ahead with the constituent assembly, accusing the Venezuelan president of being “a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator.”
Venezuela's opposition leaders have told Washington not to hurt the country's oil sector as that could rebound politically by hurting the general population. Venezuela is the third largest supplier to the U.S. and depends on petroleum for 90 percent of its export revenue.
"Our goal is to try to prevent as much harm to the U.S. economy while maximizing the impact of course on the Venezuelan regime, not the Venezuelan people," one of the officials said.
The oil relationship leaves the U.S. with enormous potential political and economic leverage over Venezuela. The U.S. buys nearly half of Venezuela's oil, while Venezuelan oil accounts for just 8 percent of U.S. oil imports.
Venezuela’s government has accused the U.S. of plotting to topple Maduro’s government in order to exploit its oil and gas reserves which are the largest in the world.
Venezuela's opposition leaders launched a 48-hour general strike on Wednesday, while a dozen Latin American governments have joined the U.S. in urging Maduro to suspend Sunday's election.
Asked if the new sanctions might make it harder politically for Maduro to back down, one U.S. official answered that the Venezuelan president should consider the outcome if he continues to defy international condemnation of his rule. "It's a reminder that we are watching and the world is watching. So, the decisions they make now and in the future will have consequences," the official said.
But later Wednesday a defiant Maduro presented some of those sanctioned with replicas of a sword belonging to Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"Congratulations for these imperialist sanctions," he told them, before handing out the swords. "What makes the imperialists of the United States think they are the world government?"
Former prisons director Varela tweeted a picture of herself giving the finger toward the camera with a message that read: "This is my response to the gringos, like Chavez told them, 'Go to hell, you piece of shit Yankees.'"