White House Imposes Sweeping Sanctions on Venezuela

U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks to journalists on Aug. 25, 2017, at U.N. headquarters in New York. (Courthouse News Service via Mark Garten/U.N.)

UNITED NATIONS (CN) — The White House’s announcement Friday of sweeping sanctions against Venezuela sparked a flurry of activity before the United Nations Security Council.

As U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley ratcheted up her rhetoric against what she called the Bolivarian republic’s “dictatorship,” Venezuela’s foreign minister Jorge Arreaza cast Washington’s actions as the “worst aggression” in the nation’s more than 200-year history.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, for his part, emphasized the need for de-escalation.

“The secretary-general reiterated his view that a political solution based on dialogue and compromise between the government and the opposition is essential, and urgent, to address the challenges faced by the country in a context of respect for rule of law and human rights,” he said.

Signed this morning in an executive order by President Donald Trump, the new round of crippling sanctions prohibit dealings in new debt and equity issued by the government of Venezuela and PDVSA, the republic’s state-run oil giant.

The sanctions also prohibit dealings in certain existing bonds owned by the Venezuelan public sector, as well as dividend payments to the government of Venezuela.

“These measures are carefully calibrated to deny the Maduro dictatorship a critical source of financing to maintain its illegitimate rule, protect the United States financial system from complicity in Venezuela’s corruption and in the impoverishment of the Venezuelan people, and allow for humanitarian assistance,” the White House said in a statement.

The Treasury Department will issue exemptions for some transactions that the sanctions would normally block, including “financing for most commercial trade,” as well as dealings with Venezuelan-owned oil company Citgo.

Jorge Arreaza, minister for foreign affairs of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, speaks to journalists on Aug. 25, 2017, at the United Nations. (Courthouse News Service via Mark Garten/U.N.)

Spotting a conflict of interest in this carve-out, the Daily Beast noted that Citgo gave $500,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee.

The exemptions will also allow financing for humanitarian goods and the export and import of petroleum, which the White House said will help “mitigate harm to the American and Venezuelan people.”

“The United States reiterates our call that Venezuela restore democracy, hold free and fair elections, release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally and end the repression of the Venezuelan people,” the statement says. “We continue to stand with the people of Venezuela during these trying times.”

Complicating this appeal, however, Trump’s State Department announced earlier this year that it would not let human-rights concerns guide foreign policy. The office is headed of course by former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson. Vice President Mike Pence hinted at the sanctions earlier this week, promising an audience in Florida that the United States would bring “the full measure of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to bear” against Maduro’s government.

Among several Republican lawmakers who have been pushing for such force, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio praised the White House’s move on Friday and referred to Maduro as a “dictator.”

“I commend the Trump administration for taking decisive and significant action to prevent the Maduro regime from using Wall Street to finance its repression and tyranny,” Rubio said in a statement Friday. “The United States remains committed to supporting the cause of freedom and democracy in Venezuela.”

Ambassador Haley also spoke of the sanctions at a press stakeout today. “It’s a strong message for the people of Venezuela, and it’s a strong message for President Maduro,” she said.

“We are not going to tolerate the dictatorship that he’s trying to create, and we’re not going to respect the sham assembly.”

Haley had been referring to an election Maduro held last month that put in place a new national assembly tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution, a move that the White House said “represents a fundamental break in Venezuela’s legitimate constitutional order.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (right) meets with Jorge Arreaza, minister for foreign affairs of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, on Aug. 25, 2017, at U.N. headquarters in New York. (Courthouse News Service via Evan Schneider/U.N.)

Venezuela’s opposition party boycotted the election, and the structure of the vote helped ensure the assembly was packed with Maduro loyalists. Maduro’s government has also clashed violently with protesters and imprisoned opposition leaders, leading to international condemnations.

The Venezuelan government has cited a study by its recently ousted attorney general, a Maduro critic, to argue that opposition protesters were responsible for much of this violence.

Maduro accuses the United States of stoking political unrest in its longtime opposition to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution begun by his  late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

The Treasury Department first imposed sanctions on Venezuela on July 26, before the assembly election, and the White House threatened to do so again after the votes came in. 

Borrowing a line from Trump, Venezuelan minister Arreaza described the attacks on the election’s integrity as “fake news.”

“We have elections next October,” he said. “Then, we have local elections for mayors in Venezuela. Then, next year we have presidential elections. It’s a democracy.”

“I don’t know why the United States is trying to make a strange case of Venezuela,” he added. “But we’re here. We’re going to defend our people and our democracy with all the means that we have.”

Trump refused to rule out a “military option” against Venezuela at a press conference earlier this month, where Tillerson and Haley stood by his side.

Blasting this bellicose rhetoric, Arreaza said: “We believe that in the 21st century in this world all nations’ [quarrels] have to be solved through dialogue, through diplomacy and not through threats of war.”

The foreign minister said that he is open to more peaceful cooperation.

“We have always extended, since President Lincoln, President Bush, President Bush, and President Trump we have always extended all our hands, our arms, our souls to have relations of mucho respect with Venezuela and with the rest of the world,” he said.

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