(WSJ, Vivian Salama, 6.Aug.2019) — The Trump administration imposed a total economic embargo against the government of Venezuela, a significant escalation of pressure against the regime of President Nicolás Maduro and countries including Russia and China that continue to support him, a senior administration official said.
President Trump late Monday signed an executive order freezing all government assets and prohibiting transactions with it, unless specifically exempted, the first action of its kind against a government in the Western Hemisphere in more than 30 years. The move places Venezuela on a par with North Korea, Iran, Syria and Cuba, the only other countries currently under such stringent U.S. measures.
Since the onset of Venezuela’s political crisis this year, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on more than 100 individuals and entities, including state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA, the Venezuelan Development Bank and Venezuela’s central bank.
The new move threatens to target and impose sanctions on virtually any company or individual, foreign or American, that engages in business or offers support to anyone affiliated with the Maduro government, the official said. It isn’t designed to target the people of Venezuela, including their access to remittances.
The U.S. has dozens of sanctions statutes, regulations and executive orders, administered by a variety of government agencies. Some involve selective sanctions while others are more comprehensive. The most rigorous and comprehensive sanctions programs are considered embargoes.
The sweeping action against Venezuela apparently had been under discussion for some time. Last week, a reporter asked President Trump whether he was considering such a measure, given China and Iran’s continued support for Mr. Maduro.
“Yes, I am,” he said.
In a letter to Congress on Monday, Mr. Trump said he decided to impose widespread sanctions “in light of the continued usurpation of power by the illegitimate Nicolás Maduro regime, as well as the regime’s human rights abuses, arbitrary arrest and detention of Venezuelan citizens, curtailment of free press, and ongoing attempts to undermine Interim President Juan Guaidó.”
The Trump administration has worked to rally countries around the world to isolate the Maduro regime as a means of forcing him from power. But a number of countries, including Russia, China and Turkey, still support the embattled leader.
In January, the U.S. announced its recognition of the leader of Venezuela’s national assembly, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s sole legitimate leader after Mr. Maduro’s 2018 election was widely denounced as a sham. Fifty-four countries around the world have followed suit.
John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national-security adviser, was in Lima, Peru, on Monday, where he was scheduled to address the International Conference on Democracy in Venezuela on Tuesday. In his speech, Mr. Bolton will condemn Russia and China’s support for Mr. Maduro as intolerable.
Mr. Bolton will also underscore what he says are past successes of economic embargoes in the Western Hemisphere, according to an advance copy of the speech viewed by The Wall Street Journal. “It worked in Panama, it worked in Nicaragua once, and it will work there again, and it will work in Venezuela and Cuba!” he says in the prepared remarks.
Deprivation and widespread crime prompted many in Venezuela this year to hold protests to demand the removal of Mr. Maduro, who has ruled the country since 2013. Economists blame much of the country’s financial crisis on years of mismanagement. About four million Venezuelans have fled the country, according to the United Nations, making it the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere.
Following mass protests, the U.S. pledged its support of Mr. Guaidó after the national assembly triggered a constitutional mechanism in January that would allow him to lead an interim government.
As a primary means of pressuring Mr. Maduro, the U.S. has imposed strict sanctions on him and members of his regime, as well as on the country’s oil sector and gold industry.
In July, the International Monetary Fund predicted an economic contraction of 35% this year for Venezuela. That was worse than the 25% decline the IMF forecast in its April report.
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International pressure further strained Venezuela’s ailing oil-production system, resulting in a nearly 50% drop in production from last year, according to figures reported last month by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last week laid out a post-Maduro economic plan for Venezuela that would include needed sources of credit and investment, rehabilitate the country’s crippled private sector, restore its oil production, revive farming and develop financing.
Mr. Maduro has ignored calls to step down and withstood international pressure to hand power to Mr. Guaidó by keeping the backing of the country’s military and welcoming support from countries that still support him.
Despite the pressure campaign, the Trump administration in July extended a license allowing Chevron Corp. to remain in Venezuela until late October, siding with administration officials who argued that the company’s absence would put U.S. energy companies at a disadvantage and not significantly advance Washington’s goal of ousting Mr. Maduro.
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The new sanctions, by targeting third-party companies that do business with the Maduro government, are intended to influence not only those companies but also the banks, insurance companies and other firms that join with them or with their customers and clients in the country.
However, these measures, known as secondary sanctions, aren’t certain to work, some analysts said.
“Secondary sanctions would be significant, depriving the regime of desperately needed oil and gold revenue,” said Benjamin Gedan, who was an Obama administration Latin America adviser.
“But it’s far from clear Venezuela’s allies would comply with secondary sanctions,” said Mr. Gedan, currently an adviser with the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. “The White House is having a tough time enforcing Iran sanctions, after all. For Venezuela sanctions, even allies that share the U.S. position, such as the Europeans and Latin Americans, have not coordinated sanctions policy.”
Similar embargoes on Iran and Cuba haven’t deterred the Chinese, Russians and others from doing business with those countries, experts said. Outside observers also warn that sweeping sanctions and secondary sanctions on Venezuela could exacerbate the economic crisis and lend Mr. Maduro ammunition to blame Washington for the nation’s woes.
The action the U.S. is set to take grants some 21 exemptions to international and nongovernmental organizations for services such as humanitarian goods, mail, food, medicine and the internet.
However, experts said that this rarely works in practice.
“The administration hasn’t been very good at dedicating financial lines that would allow the purchase of food and medicine in sanctioned countries,” said Jeffrey Schott, an economic-sanctions expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank. “In practice, we still block food and medicine because the parties in the targeted regime that want to import it can’t get financing.”
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