President Trump took steps Monday to punish Venezuela for what his administration called a fraudulent presidential election Sunday in the once-oil-rich country now devastated by economic and social crises.
The action came amid a growing international rebuke of Venezuelan socialist leader Nicolas Maduro, who claimed victory after a vote in which he had banned his main opponents from running.
"Sunday's process was choreographed by a regime too unpopular and afraid of its own people to risk free elections and open competition," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
Trump, through an executive order, restricted Venezuela's ability to liquidate assets at bargain-basement prices — a way to prevent Venezuelan leaders from looting the state and enriching themselves.
Under the order, it will become illegal for U.S. citizens and residents to buy up Venezuelan debt, a tactic Maduro has used to keep his government afloat.
It was the latest sanction imposed on Venezuela, a series of penalties that began during the Obama administration. It stops short of the most severe punishment: an embargo on Venezuelan oil.
Some regional governments argue against that measure because they rely on cheap Venezuelan oil. The U.S. also buys Venezuelan oil, and an embargo might raise gasoline prices at the pump.
Venezuela is suffering from sky-high inflation and violent crime, shortages of food, medicines and other goods, and brutal government repression of dissent. Millions have fled, pouring into other countries in South America and the Caribbean, as well as the United States.
Maduro blames "imperialism" for the country's problems, but his critics blame government mismanagement and corruption. The International Monetary Fund estimates inflation in Venezuela at nearly 14,000% for 2018.
Washington has accused numerous officials of using drug trafficking and money laundering schemes to make off with millions of dollars. The U.S. also says the Venezuelan government siphons off humanitarian aid.
"This region has never seen a kleptocracy like this," nor a country "so quickly sucked into an economic death spiral," said a senior administration official who announced Trump's executive order and briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
The White House has been selective in its criticism of elections, attacking Venezuela but congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for their lopsided electoral victories. Democracy advocates said those elections were also beset by irregularities.
Maduro also came under scathing criticism from the so-called Lima Group, a coalition of most of the hemisphere's countries that came together to ease the Venezuela disaster and bring the president and his opposition into talks.
The 14-member bloc condemned Sunday's vote, refused to recognize the results and pledged to downgrade diplomatic relations with Caracas.
Venezuela still receives considerable political and financial support from Russia and China. The administration official said Washington was warning Beijing against continuing to do business with Maduro's government.
"They are smashing and grabbing anything that isn't bolted down," the official said in describing what he called massive looting by a handful of Maduro's cronies.
Pompeo said the Sunday election was unfair in part because Maduro had stacked Venezuelan courts and election boards with his supporters.
The Venezuelan government stifled the free press, jailed more than 300 political prisoners and, "most contemptible of all," selectively parceled out food to manipulate votes, Pompeo said.
With a historically low turnout, Maduro won with 68% of the vote, against two little-known opponents. The main opposition groups called for a boycott as scattered demonstrations flared Sunday night and Monday.
Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to this report.