The Cable

White House Imposes New Sanctions to Punish Venezuela’s President

The Trump administration promises even more economic pain if Maduro moves forward with a vote to rewrite the constitution.

TOPSHOT - Anti-government demonstrators attack the administration headquarters of the Supreme Court of Justice as part of protests against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on June 12, 2017. 
With Venezuelans suffering from high inflation, food shortages and soaring crime rates, plus a deepening corruption scandal, the Venezuelan opposition has mounted near-daily anti-government protests since April 1. The protests have left 66 dead and more than a thousand injured, according to prosecutors. 
 / AFP PHOTO / Federico PARRA        (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Anti-government demonstrators attack the administration headquarters of the Supreme Court of Justice as part of protests against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on June 12, 2017. With Venezuelans suffering from high inflation, food shortages and soaring crime rates, plus a deepening corruption scandal, the Venezuelan opposition has mounted near-daily anti-government protests since April 1. The protests have left 66 dead and more than a thousand injured, according to prosecutors. / AFP PHOTO / Federico PARRA (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House announced new sanctions Wednesday on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials and threatened further economic measures if President Nicolás Maduro follows through with plans rewrite the country’s constitution.

Maduro, whose approval rating has slipped dramatically in recent years, argues this step is a necessary step to transform the country into a direct democracy. But opposition lawmakers charge it’s a naked power grab from an authoritarian leader who has lost support. 

The White House apparently agrees. “The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” President Donald Trump said in a statement July 17 calling for “free and fair elections.”

A senior administration official said the new sanctions add to a “steady drumbeat” of pressure meant to compel Maduro to back down, and said more measures are in the works if he doesn’t halt a vote to convene a constituent assembly, scheduled for July 30.

“Anyone who decides to join 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,” an official told reporters in a call Wednesday.

The sanctions are targeted at prominent individuals, including members of Venezuela’s National Guard and police, as well as high-ranking government officials who have supported the constituent assembly, like Tibisay Lucena Ramírez, president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council. They will be barred from accessing U.S. assets and will be unable to travel to the United States or do business with Americans.

The decision to apply sanctions seems to be one of the few priorities Congress and the White House agree on. The Venezuelans targeted track closely with a list prepared Tuesday by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), hailed the news as “an important step to hold Venezuela’s leaders accountable for their actions.”

If Maduro doesn’t back down, the Trump administration may choose to impose a more expansive oil embargo. “All options are still on the table,” a senior administration official confirmed.

Currently, oil exports accounts for about 95 percent of all Venezuelan exports, but cutting off oil trade would worsen the humanitarian crisis in the country — the country’s economy is already cratering thanks to a dip in the price of oil, and Venezuelans are suffering acute medicine and food shortages. Such an embargo might also backfire by giving Maduro a convenient punching bag for his country’s woes: the ever-interventionist Yanquis.

Photo Credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Kavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Rwanda and Senegal. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. @ksurana6

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