The Trump administration hit Venezuela with economic sanctions Thursday to block its exports of gold, a lifeline commodity for the embattled leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro, but put off targeting its oil exports, the mainstay of its economy.
President Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, announced the sanctions as he outlined a muscular Latin America strategy that seeks to isolate and punish leftist governments in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua — which he branded a “troika of tyranny” and a “triangle of terror” — while embracing right-wing leaders in Colombia, Chile and soon Brazil.
Bolton spoke in Miami days before two bitterly contested elections in Florida — for governor and U.S. senator — where the votes of hard-line Cuban and Venezuelan exiles could have a significant effect on White House goals. Trump campaigned for Republicans in the state on Wednesday.
Although the strategy was heavy on rhetoric and light on specifics, Bolton drew a clear line between friends and foes, and his bellicose language could stoke fears in Latin America that Washington could take a more aggressive role, especially against Venezuela, in a region where it once backed coups and juntas.
Bolton praised the president-elect of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, as a “like-minded” partner in the fight to "advance the rule of law," citing his recent electoral victory as one of several “positive signs” for the region. A former military officer who has praised far-right dictatorships, Bolsonaro is perhaps best known for making insults to women, gays and people of color.
On Monday, Trump had tweeted that had a “very good conversation” with Bolsonaro. “We agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else! Excellent call, wished him congrats!”
A senior administration official said the White House is confident that Brazil’s “strong institutions” will preserve order in the hemisphere’s second-largest democracy. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Trump and Bolsonaro share a dedication to free markets and open government.
Reverting to the language of the anti-communist crusades during the Cold War, Bolton said the United States would “stand with the freedom fighters” against “tyrants who fancy themselves strongmen and revolutionaries, icons and luminaries.”
“In reality, they are clownish, pitiful figures more akin to Larry, Curly and Moe,” Bolton said. “The three stooges of socialism are true believers, but they worship a false god.”
He sought to emphasize the “destructive” influence that Cuba plays in Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, in Nicaragua. Cuban military, intelligence and medical personnel have been operating for years in Venezuela to shore up Maduro and, before him, the late Hugo Chavez.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has brutally suppressed protests calling for his ouster. Clashes have left more than 300 people dead since May.
Bolton accused the three countries of being “the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere”.
Bolton did not offer to expand asylum programs for people fleeing the countries he condemned as oppressive. The Trump administration has made it more difficult to obtain refugee status in the United States. In September, it announced plans to admit a maximum of 30,000 refugees in 2019, the lowest cap in U.S. history.
Even as Bolton spoke, the Trump administration’s relative isolation was highlighted at the United Nations, where the General Assembly adopted its 27th annual resolution calling on the United States to end its economic embargo on Cuba. U.S. diplomats tried unsuccessfully to amend the resolution to pressure Cuba to improve its human rights record.
The penalties against Venezuela were in an executive order signed by Trump and released Thursday. They target specific economic sectors, including sanctions aimed at the “illicit” exploitation of gold. Venezuela exported $900 million worth of gold in the first nine months of this year through Turkey in anticipation of U.S. restrictions.
The new sanctions will deny the Maduro government “access to stolen wealth,” which it uses “as a bastion to finance illicit activities, to fill its coffers and to support criminal groups,” Bolton said.
Administration officials said Trump’s order could lead to sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, an action that would reverberate throughout the Americas. U.S. officials worry that interfering with the oil industry could cause prices at U.S. gas pumps to soar and hurt U.S. refineries that process Venezuelan crude. In addition, several Caribbean allies rely heavily on cheap Venezuelan oil.
Venezuela is reeling from economic and political turmoil, with food and medicine scarcities that have sent nearly 2 million residents fleeing to neighboring countries and farther abroad since 2015.
The Trump administration previously blacklisted 70 Venezuelan individuals and entities, including Maduro and his wife, barring them from traveling to the United States or doing business with Americans or American companies.
Bolton said the Treasury Department also expanded the list of businesses that it believes are controlled by Cuba’s military or intelligence services and are off-limits to U.S. trade or commerce. The administration has attempted to roll back many of the openings with Cuba that began under President Obama.
Miami is still a bastion, albeit a shrinking one, of ultraconservative Cuban and Venezuelan exiles and their descendants and supporters. Bolton spoke at the city’s Freedom Tower, where Cuban refugees were welcomed after the 1959 revolution that brought communists to power.
Thursday’s speech appeared a long-delayed victory for Bolton. Some 16 years ago, when he served in the State Department, he urged the White House to add Cuba to President George W. Bush’s description of Iran, North Korea and Iraq as an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech.
At the time, Bolton accused Havana of producing illicit biological weapons, although there was no reliable evidence. Then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage blocked his effort.
Now Cuba has joined Bolton’s troika of tyranny.