The Treasury Department targeted on Wednesday 13 current and former Venezuelan government officials with economic sanctions ahead of the country’s upcoming election, widely feared as a power grab by the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the department’s sanctions arm, specifically went after those involved with the upcoming election and the alleged violent suppression of protests, corruption and currency manipulation. All assets of those officials subject to U.S. jurisdiction are frozen, and U.S. residents are prohibited from financial transactions with them.
The sanctions come ahead of a vote Sunday to choose a National Constituent Assembly (Asamblea Nacional Constituyente, or ANC), widely viewed as an attempt by the ruling Maduro government to solidify its control over Venezuela as protests against his administration and the country’s devastated economy continue to rage.
"What is happening in Venezuela right now is that the regime is trying to eliminate the few democratic institutions that are left there, including the parliament," Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) told The Hill.
Venezuela's unicameral parliament, the National Assembly, has been in control of the opposition since elections in 2015, but its powers have been largely curbed by Maduro and the supreme court, which Maduro controls.
Protests against Maduro's power grab have prompted a violent response from the government.
According to Foro Penal, a non-governmental organization that keeps track of the violence, at least 67 people have died as a result of the repression and 403 have been jailed as political prisoners.
And the crisis in the country is taking effects throughout the hemisphere.
On Tuesday, the Venezuelan government accused the U.S. of conspiring with Colombia and Mexico to overthrow it.
“The United States will not ignore the Maduro regime’s ongoing efforts to undermine democracy, freedom, and the rule of law,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday. “As our sanctions demonstrate, the United States is standing by the Venezuelan people in their quest to restore their country to a full and prosperous democracy.”
The new sanctions ahead of the Sunday vote on the Constituent Assembly received bipartisan praise in Congress.
"I'm pleased to see an administration that is really paying attention — to the hemisphere, to this hemisphere and they're showing solidarity with the Venezuelan people," said Díaz-Balart.
"I'm glad the president has made a first attempt. Whether it's enough or not I'm going to have to study it and decide," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
"What is enough, in my opinion, is that the Venezuelan people have had enough of Maduro," Engel added.
It's unclear whether the sanctions will be enough to derail Maduro's has scheduled Constituent Assembly election.
"If Maduro imposes the assembly, the United States will take economic action," said a top administration official on a background call. "Today's actions are more part of the steady drumbeat that we've been following and of course a reminder [for bad actors]."
Administration officials added that more sanctions could be expected against Venezuelan officials who choose to participate in Sunday's election.
In a statement, Treasury expressed fears that the Constituent Assembly “will have the power to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution and may choose to dissolve Venezuelan state institutions.”
“A flawed ANC election process all but guarantees that a majority of the Assembly’s members will represent the interests of President Maduro’s government,” Treasury said.
Trump administration officials declined to say what extra sanctions could be imposed after Sunday's vote, but the United States is likely to float the prospect of an oil embargo if conditions in Venezuela don't improve.
"I think the administration has a number of different options on the table. I have no doubt that if in fact the situation in Venezuela continues the way it is, that you're going to see a dramatic step up in those sanctions," said Díaz-Balart.
"Obviously the most dramatic is oil sanctions."
But oil sanctions could further damage Venezuelan standards of living, already in freefall, and give Maduro an external enemy to blame for the crumbling economy.
Wednesday's sanctions were levied based on an existing executive order. Administration officials did not rule out rolling out a new instrument with more extensive powers for any forthcoming sanctions.
Treasury sanctioned four Venezuelan officials involved in the election process: Tibisay Lucena Ramirez, president of the National Electoral Council and Venezuela’s National Board of Elections; Elías Jose Jaua Milano, head of the Presidential Commission for the National Constituent Assembly; Tarek William Saab Halabi, Venezuela’s ombudsman and president of Venezuela’s Republican Moral Council; and María Iris Varela Rangel, a member of the Presidential Commission for the National Constituent Assembly.
Treasury also targeted five current and former officials responsible for violently suppressing protests over Maduro’s actions. The Venezuelan opposition estimates that up to 15,000 civilians have been wounded, with 3,000 people arrested and 431 political prisoners in detention “without fair and transparent judicial process,” according to Treasury.
The targeted officials include Néstor Luis Reverol Torres, Venezuela’s Minister of Interior, Justice, and Peace; Carlos Alfredo Pérez Ampueda, national director of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Police; Sergio José Rivero Marcano, commander general of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard; Jesús Rafael Súarez Chourio, general commander of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Army; and Franklin Horacio García Duque, former national director of the Bolivarian National Police.
Wednesday’s action is the latest in a series of Treasury sanctions against high-ranking Venezuelan government officials. The Trump administration imposed financial sanctions against Vice President Tareck El Aissami in February after he’d been investigated for years for money laundering and drug trafficking.
A top administration official speaking on background Wednesday said investigations into El Aissami and his alleged frontman, Samarck López Bello, had found "a lot more money than we anticipated."
"OFAC anticipates the blocked assets to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars," said the official.
"This guy is a career public servant … to have hundreds of millions stashed away is shocking and speaks volumes to the corruption and narcotrafficking that is rampant in Venezuela's government," the official added.
Updated at 4:00 p.m.