US claims latest Venezuela sanctions put Maduro 'on notice'

Maduro gov't condemns move as 'economic terrorism'

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN
Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (center) speaks at the Balcón del Pueblo of the Miraflores Government Palace on Jan. 23, 2019, in Caracas, Venezuela.

(CNN) - As the Trump administration touted the latest action in its campaign targeting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, his government condemned the move as "economic terrorism against the Venezuelan people."

On Monday night, President Donald Trump issued a sweeping executive order banning Americans from doing business with Maduro's government and freezing its assets and associated entities unless specifically exempted. It is the latest move in the US bid to force out the embattled Venezuelan leader, with whom the United States severed ties in January. The US and dozens of other countries have backed opposition leader Juan Guaido and have called on Maduro to leave power.

National security adviser John Bolton, speaking at a conference in Lima, Peru, on Tuesday, said the Maduro government was "on notice" following the executive order, calling it the most sweeping action the administration has taken over the last six months. He said the US had not taken such an action in the Western Hemisphere since 1988, when it froze the assets of the Noriega government in Panama.

Bolton warned against continued financial engagement with the Maduro government, saying, "There is no need to risk your business interests with the United States for the purposes of profiting from a corrupt and dying regime."

In a statement on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the executive order was not an embargo but "a significant action" taken "in response to the continuing usurpation of power by Maduro and persons affiliated with him from the legitimate interim government of Interim President Guaido, as well as human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention of Venezuelan citizens, interference with freedom of expression, including for members of the media, and ongoing attempts to undermine Interim President Guaido and the democratically elected National Assembly's exercise of legitimate authority in Venezuela."

The Maduro government denounced the executive order in a statement.

"This decision from the government in the United States attempts to award a legal form to the sanctions in all the assets and properties of the Venezuelan state, constituting the most grotesque and shameless sacking in international relation's modern history," the statement said. "In the face of the imperialist attack, President Nicolas Maduro ratifies his call to unity for all Venezuelans to confront the economic and political terrorism in this new phase."

Venezuela's ambassador to the United Nations called the sanctions "illegal, cruel, monstrous measures." In a letter, Venezuela also appealed to the UN Security Council on Tuesday to block what it says are US attempts to provoke a military incident and to set up a naval blockade.

The United Nations on Tuesday expressed concern about getting humanitarian aid to the people of Venezuela in the wake of the latest sanctions. The Trump administration has said there is an exception for humanitarian aid.

Some experts have echoed the administration on the scope of the latest sanctions, although they noted that the action doesn't go so far as to impose a total economic embargo.

Eric Lorber, a former Treasury Department official and the senior director of the Center on Economic and Financial Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that "prior to executive order, there were restrictions on Venezuela entities, but they were sort of transactionally limited."

"What you have now is full sanctions...on every government of Venezuela entity. So in that sense, it is a significant escalation," he told CNN.

"These newest sanctions are a way to, I think, much more comprehensively codify all of the various sanctions imposed thus far but also be much more explicit as far as blocking all property and assets that are under the control of the regime," said Jason Marczak, the director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. He told CNN he believes there will be "a chilling effect with regard to any business interests or any business transactions in Venezuela."

However, experts have suggested that the actual financial impact of the move may be limited given the administration's existing sanctions regime.

"I don't think this does much of anything because it only targets the government of Venezuela and US persons business with it. I can't believe there is much of that after the PDVSA sanctions of January so, practically, though this is a potentially big step legally, I can't see it having any real practical effect beyond the sanctions in place," Richard Nephew, a former State Department official who worked on sanctions policy, told CNN in an email. He explained that because the US and Venezuela do not have a normal relationship, the "practical effects" of the action are likely to be "marginal at best."

Lorber told CNN the economic impact "probably won't be that significant."

"Many US companies have already pulled out of Venezuela," he said. "I think that the economic impact could be related to the threat against Chinese, Russian and Cuban entities."

While the new executive order does not include secondary sanctions, Lorber notes that the provision in the executive order for material support could expose foreign companies to sanctions.

Marczak noted that "there are already a number of measures that kind of adversely affect both Russia and China with regards to their dealings in Venezuela." In March, the US designated a Moscow-based bank for its support of Venezuelan oil and natural gas company PDVSA.

CNN's Richard Roth, Kylie Atwood, Maria Ramirez Uribe and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.

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