Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration hit Venezuela with new sanctions Wednesday targeting 13 current or former top officials in President Nicolas Maduro's government, and threatened more penalties if he goes through with efforts to rewrite the beleaguered country's constitution.
The fresh sanctions were intended to dissuade Maduro from holding a controversial election, scheduled for Sunday, for a constituent assembly charged with overhauling the country's charter, Trump administration officials said. They targeted four senior Venezuelan officials that the U.S. said were promoting that election or undermining democracy in Venezuela, along with five others implicated in violence or repression amid the country's political crisis.
Four more Venezuelans linked to Venezuela's state oil company or other government-run institutions were also penalized in what the Treasury Department described as an effort to crack down on corruption and Venezuela's black market. The sanctions freeze any assets the individuals have in the U.S. and bar Americans from doing business with them.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggested more penalties could be coming unless Maduro's government changes course.
"Anyone elected to the National Constituent Assembly should know that their role in undermining democratic processes and institutions in Venezuela could expose them to potential U.S. sanctions," Mnuchin said.
His threat was echoed by other U.S. officials who said such penalties could be applied to any "bad actors" in Maduro's government who are involved in corruption, human rights abuses or efforts to undermine democracy. They vowed "strong and swift economic action" against Venezuela if it goes through with Sunday's vote. Those officials briefed reporters on a conference call on condition of anonymity.
Maduro is promoting the constitution rewrite as a means of resolving Venezuela's political standoff and economic crisis, but opposition leaders are boycotting it. The assembly could dramatically reshape government and help Maduro further consolidate his power.
The U.S. is among 13 countries in the regional Organization of American States urging Venezuela not to hold the vote. Yet despite major and continuing protests, Maduro's government has not shown signs of backing down.
Among those hit by the sanctions were Tibisay Lucena Ramirez, the president of the National Electoral Council and president of Venezuela's National Board of Elections; Elias Jose Jaua Milano, Minister of Education and head of the Presidential Commission for the National Constituent Assembly; Tarek William Saab Halabi, the president of Venezuela's Republican Moral Council; and Maria Iris Varela Rangel, a Member of Venezuela's Presidential Commission for the Constituent Assembly.
In addition, penalties will apply to several members of Venezuela's national guard, police and other security services, including Interior Minister Nestor Luis Reverol Torres, who was indicted last year by the Justice Department for his alleged role in an international cocaine distribution conspiracy.
The U.S. also said it had determined that Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, hit with U.S. sanctions in February, had "hundreds of millions of dollars" in assets that have been frozen due to the sanctions. The U.S. has accused El Aissami of playing a major role in global drug trafficking, a charge he denies. El Aissami is the most senior Venezuelan official to ever be targeted by the U.S.
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein in Caracas, Venezuela contributed to this report.