Trump freezes Venezuela gov’t assets in escalation

A U.S. executive order cited Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's continued "usurpation of power" and human rights abuses by security forces loyal to him.
(Associated Press)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration froze all Venezuelan government assets Monday in a dramatic ratcheting up of tensions with Nicolás Maduro that places his socialist administration on a short list of adversaries from Cuba, North Korea, Syria and Iran that haven been targeted by such aggressive U.S. actions.

The ban blocking Americans from doing business with Maduro’s government, which takes effect immediately, is the first of its kind in the western hemisphere in over three decades, following an asset freeze against Gen. Manuel Noriega’s government in Panama and a trade embargo on the Sandinista leadership in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

The executive order signed by President Donald Trump justified the move by citing Maduro’s “continued usurpation of power” and human rights abuses by security forces loyal to him.

While the order falls short of an outright trade embargo, it represents the most sweeping U.S. action to remove Maduro since the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader in January.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton hinted earlier Monday that sweeping U.S. action was close at hand. Speaking to reporters on the eve of an international conference in Peru to show support for Guaidó, he said that the U.S. was readying measures “that will show the determination that the United States has to get a peaceful transfer of power.”

But it remains to see what impact it will have on Venezuela’s already moribund economy, suffering as it is from six-digit hyperinflation and a deep, multi-year contraction that surpasses that of the Great Depression in the U.S.

Previous sanctions targeting the South American nation’s oil industry, the source of almost all of its export earnings, have already accelerated a dramatic crash in oil production that started with Maduro’s election in 2013 following the death of his mentor Hugo Chavez.

More than 100 officials and government insiders have also had their U.S. assets frozen and blocked from doing business with Americans. As part of the executive order, that list could soon be expanded to include anyone the U.S. Treasury and State Departments determine to be assisting Maduro, his government or previously sanctioned individuals. The same Maduro supporters will also be banned from entering the U.S.

Exceptions will be allowed for the delivery of food, medicine and clothing. Transactions with Venezuela’s still sizable private sector do not appear to be affected either. It’s unclear how the actions will affect American oil giant Chevron, which last month received a three-month exemption from the U.S. Treasury to allow it to continue drilling for oil with state-run oil monopoly PDVSA.

Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuelan researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that the measures will aggravate a humanitarian crisis even with the exceptions in place to protect the most vulnerable as western banks avoid processing even legitimate transactions.

“The truth is that no financial institution wants to run afoul of the Treasury Department,” he said.

Instead of doubling down on the same embargo strategy that has failed for decades to produce regime change in communist Cuba, he thinks the U.S. should do more to support ongoing negotiations being sponsored by Norway between Maduro and Guaidó representatives.

Bolton and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are representing the United States at what host Peru has dubbed the International Conference for Democracy in Venezuela, a gathering of 59 nations that with few exceptions back Guaidó and consider Maduro’s re-election last year to be fraudulent.

Moments after the executive order was announced, Bolton tweeted that he was looking ahead to what he hopes will be a “productive” day in Lima, Peru.


Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.

AP Writers Franklin Briceno in Lima, Peru and Scott Smith in Caracas, Venezuela contributed to this report