The Trump administration stepped up its pressure campaign on Venezuela’s socialist president Monday, hitting the country’s state-owned oil company with sanctions and calling on other nations to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim president.
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said the sanctions will block $7 billion in assets for the state-owned oil company PDVSA “to prevent the further diversion of Venezuela’s assets” by socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who faces demands from the U.S. and other governments across the hemisphere to step down amid his country’s deepening economic and political crises.
“The United States is holding accountable those responsible for Venezuela’s tragic decline,” Mr. Mnuchin said.
President Trump last week officially recognized Mr. Guaido as the legitimate leader of the country, as have the leaders of Canada, Brazil, Colombia and other nations. Mr. Maduro, so far, has kept Venezuela’s military on his side and has received support from allies such as Cuba, Russia and China.
The U.S. has pulled some of its embassy personnel from Caracas as the situation in the country deteriorates, with protests, street clashes and economic hardship.
Citing in part millions of Venezuelans who have fled economic hardship in recent years, White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton said the country is “in a state of collapse” and called on the nation’s security forces to cooperate in a peaceful transfer of power to Mr. Guaido.
“Now is the time to stand for democracy and prosperity in Venezuela,” Mr. Bolton said. “We also today call on the Venezuelan military and security forces to accept the peaceful, democratic and constitutional transfer of power.”
The U.S. and other countries said Mr. Maduro’s inauguration this month for another six-year term was based on a fraud-riddled election last year and that Venezuela’s constitution makes Mr. Guaido, 35, the country’s rightful leader until new elections can be organized.
The White House warned the Maduro government again against harming U.S. diplomatic personnel in the country or members of the Venezuelan opposition.
“The United States will hold Venezuelan security forces responsible for the safety of all U.S. diplomatic personnel, the National Assembly and President Guaido,” Mr. Bolton said. “Any violence against these groups would signify a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response.”
He declined to elaborate on what that response might be and said there were signs that the Venezuelan military was re-examining its loyalties.
“Our assessment based on numerous contacts on the ground is that the rank and file of the Venezuelan military is acutely aware of the desperate economic conditions in the country, and we think they look for ways to support the National Assembly government,” he said.
The Reuters news agency reported that Mr. Guaido called for street demonstrations as pressure intensified on Mr. Maduro and the crisis-stricken OPEC nation.
“We must remain united as active agents of change in every corner of the country,” Mr. Guaido tweeted. “We’re doing well, very well, Venezuela!”
The administration’s sanctions drew bipartisan support in Congress, even though lawmakers expressed concern about Mr. Trump’s warning that the option of military action against Venezuela remains “on the table.”
“I strongly back efforts by the United States to use economic and political pressure to support the restoration of democracy in Venezuela,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat.
But he said “given the potential implications of this announcement for the well-being of the Venezuelan people, the U.S. should also pair sanctions with expanded efforts to peacefully address Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis” and work with allies on a permanent political solution.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a leading anti-Maduro voice on Capitol Hill, said Mr. Maduro’s “crime family has used PDVSA to buy and keep the support of many military leaders.”
“The oil belongs to the Venezuelan people, and therefore the money PDVSA earns from its export will now be returned to the people through their legitimate constitutional government,” Mr. Rubio said.
Some Democrats accuse the administration of seeking regime change through military means in a country with at least nominal democratic elections and institutions. Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat, said it was appalling that Vice President Mike Pence called Mr. Guaido on the night before he declared himself president and pledged U.S. support.
“It makes no sense that our vice president would [be] interfering in politics in Venezuela,” Mr. Khanna said in an interview with Democracy Now. “What we ought to be doing is working through international institutions and laws, calling for human rights, but not getting involved in a potential civil war.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has named Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative hawk, to be his special envoy to Venezuela.
Venezuela is the fourth-largest oil exporter to the U.S. market, behind Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico. It ships 15 million to 20 million barrels a month, but many U.S. refiners in the Gulf of Mexico are configured to handle Venezuela’s grade of crude oil, and PDVSA is the majority owner of the parent company of the Citgo gas station chain.
Despite the economic links, Mr. Mnuchin said the effects of the sanctions on U.S. consumers would be limited.
“I don’t expect that people will see an impact on the gas pumps,” he said Monday at a special White House briefing.
Facing worries from U.S. refiners, the Trump administration stopped short of imposing a blanket ban on imports of Venezuelan oil.
The Treasury Department said it was issuing general licenses to certain U.S. companies and others to ensure that the sanctions “do not target the innocent people of Venezuela and will not prohibit humanitarian assistance, including the provision of medicine and medical devices, which are desperately needed after years of economic destruction under Maduro’s rule.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres repeated his offer Monday of “good offices” to facilitate negotiations between the Maduro government and the Guaido-led opposition. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Mr. Guterres reiterated the offer during a meeting with a delegation from the Caribbean Community on the situation in Venezuela “and its implications for the region.”
The Maduro government has expressed scorn for the international pressure campaign and has shown no early signs of cracking. Venezuela’s foreign minister said the top U.S. envoy in Caracas met with officials of the government to try to ease tensions despite the cut in ties.
In an appearance on state TV, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza held up photos showing U.S. Charge d’Affaires James Story and a top Venezuelan government official as proof of the meetings.
“We are acting in good faith from Venezuela,” Mr. Arreaza said. “We aspire to see the U.S. also cooperate in good faith.”
But finding common ground could be difficult. U.S. officials have labeled Mr. Maduro a dictator and called for him to step down, and Mr. Maduro has accused the White House of leading a coup to overthrow him and plunder Venezuela’s vast oil and gold resources.
Mr. Maduro has recalled Venezuelan diplomats from the U.S. and ordered all U.S. Embassy staff out of the country, but he later backtracked.
Mr. Arreaza said Mr. Story met with the Venezuelan government officials over four consecutive days last week, including on Wednesday, the day that Mr. Guaido declared himself interim president, setting off violent clashes between demonstrators and the national guard.
The communications are aimed at creating an open dialogue between the U.S. and Mr. Maduro’s government, Mr. Arreaza said. The U.S. government didn’t immediately confirm whether the meetings took place.
Opposition supporters have launched a campaign to lure rank-and-file soldiers, a critical base of Mr. Maduro’s hold on power, to back Mr. Guaido, handing out leaflets outlining a proposed law that would grant them amnesty for helping overthrow the president.
The campaign appears to have had little sway so far, but at least two Venezuelan government officials in the U.S. have abandoned Mr. Maduro. Col. Jose Luis Silva, Venezuela’s military attache in Washington, said Saturday that he had broken with Mr. Maduro.
Consular officer Scarlet Salazar at the Venezuelan Consulate in Miami issued a videotaped statement Monday throwing her support behind Mr. Guaido. She said she is living up to her constitutional duty as a career diplomat.
“This is our country’s moment,” she said, urging others to follow. “Let’s support the Venezuelans.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.