US Sanctions Top Venezuela Officials for Blocking Aid

This image taken from video shows a fuel tanker, cargo trailers and makeshift fencing blocking the Tienditas International Bridge in an attempt to stop humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela on Feb. 6, 2019. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Calling Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro an illegitimate former president, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions Friday against six military leaders who played a role in blocking humanitarian aid to the embattled South American nation.

“We are sanctioning members of Maduro’s security forces in response to the reprehensible violence, tragic deaths, and unconscionable torching of food and medicine destined for sick and starving Venezuelans,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Mnuchin said blockades used to stop the aid from entering the country last month are the latest example of Maduro’s “illegitimate regime weaponizing the delivery of food and critically needed supplies in order to control vulnerable Venezuelans.”

The new sanctions against six top Venezuelan security officials come during the high-profile conflict between Maduro, his opposition inside Venezuela and humanitarian workers outside the country, all set to the backdrop of escalating tensions with the U.S. government.

Speaking to reporters Thursday on his trip to Vietnam, President Donald Trump said aid was getting into Venezuela but did not offer specifics.

“We’re sending a lot of supplies down. People are starving to death. You would think the man in charge currently would let those get through,” Trump said. “We’re getting them into some of the cities and some of the areas that need them the most. It’s very difficult, not an easy job.”

Controlling the flow of food to starving Venezuelans has long been a political tactic for those in power, or seeking power, in the oil-rich nation.

In an episode of The New York Times podcast The Daily released last month, Nicholas Casey, the paper’s Andes bureau chief, said it’s a tactic going back to Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez.

“[The] government is in charge of food distribution in the country… Maduro understands better than anyone that those who control the food control the country,” Casey said. “It’s a lesson that hasn’t been lost on the U.S. and that’s what he’s worried about when he’s looking at the food on the other side of the border.”

A video on the Times website shows Venezuelans in food lines, speaking with members of Maduro’s party and being instructed how to vote if they wish to get fed.

“Remember, if you don’t vote, we can’t count on you,” said a party member identified only as Bridgett. “If you need something, if you need medicine, if you vote, we’ll put you on the list.”

In speeches ahead of his last electoral victory, Maduro turned this alleged promise into a slogan – “I give and you give.”

While the U.S. has avoided military involvement in Venezuela so far, Secretary Mnuchin continued the Trump administration’s call for opposition leader Juan Guaido to take power.

“The United States strongly supports the efforts of Interim President Juan Guaido, and Treasury will continue to target Maduro loyalists prolonging the suffering of the victims of this man-made humanitarian crisis,” Mnuchin said Friday.

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