Trump administration officials are warning that the U.S. will impose new, targeted sanctions on Venezuela if the leftist government there does not stop its slide toward autocracy and economic implosion.
The admonishment, shared with POLITICO by two senior administration officials on Wednesday, is the latest indication of the tougher line President Donald Trump is taking toward countries deemed U.S. adversaries than his predecessor, Barack Obama.
It came as the U.S. and Venezuela repeatedly tangled during a dramatic general assembly meeting of the Organization of American States this week in Cancun, Mexico. There, the Venezuelan foreign minister practically dared the U.S. to send in the Marines, called her country’s critics “lapdogs of imperialism,” and said Venezuela would quit the multilateral forum.
The Trump administration has already imposed targeted sanctions — which affect individuals and entities — on top Venezuelan officials, including eight members of its Supreme Court as well as the country’s vice president, which the U.S. accused of being involved in drug trafficking.
Administration officials said they were planning on a “steady drumbeat” of more such sanctions if Venezuelan leaders “continue their behavior.” A new round could be rolled out within weeks.
“We’re definitely moving beyond ‘strategic patience,’” one of the U.S. officials said, referring to the label for an Obama-era approach to troublesome foreign governments.
Targeted sanctions include freezing any assets a person or entity may have in the United States and forbidding Americans from engaging in business with the person or entity being penalized. In its less than six months in office, the Trump administration has imposed or threatened to use such sanctions against a number of countries considered nemeses, including Iran and North Korea.
The Trump administration officials would not say which officials or entities would be targeted next in Venezuela, but suggested they could go for alleged human rights abusers, officials involved in holding political prisoners, or those who may be part of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to rewrite the country’s constitution.
On the latter, the Trump administration officials insisted that the United States will not recognize a new, Maduro-inspired constitution for Venezuela. “We believe in the current constitution,” one of the officials said.
Venezuela, a country of 31 million people, has been mired in an an expanding economic and political crisis in recent years. Much of it is caused by Maduro’s efforts to consolidate power while exerting tremendous control over an economy heavily dependent on oil production. While the Venezuelan leadership is socialist-inspired, some critics say the real problem is that it also is rampantly corrupt.
The economic mismanagement has led to shortages of food, medicine and basic goods such as toilet paper. In 2016, Venezuela’s gross domestic product fell 10 percent, while inflation soared to 720 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. Crime has also risen, and opposition protests have been met with a heavy crackdown that have left some 70 people dead.
The Trump administration officials said that in weighing what sanctions to impose — including sanctions that go after entire sectors of Venezuela’s economy — they want to avoid causing more hardship for ordinary Venezuelans.
Officials in the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the government in Caracas has been defiant against what it perceives as unwarranted interference by the United States and others in the Western Hemisphere.
The United States has been trying to get the Organization of American States to pass a resolution criticizing the government of Venezuela. Although the U.S. has about 20 other countries on its side, as of Wednesday afternoon it had not been able to get the resolution through. Some of the resistance has been from Caribbean nations that rely on cheap oil from Venezuela.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez added to the theatrics throughout the gathering, according to multiple media accounts. She highlighted problems in other Latin American countries, asked if the U.S. and its allies “want war” to cripple Venezuela and urged other regional players not to bow down to American demands. When U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan took the floor at one point, Rodriguez said: “Great, we’ve reached the boss.”
In remarks to the international gathering as well as to reporters, Sullivan described the situation in Venezuela as dire, especially on the humanitarian front.
“On behalf of the United States, we say to the Venezuelan people that your cause is not forgotten,” he said during a press availability. “We stand with you in your aspirations of recovering a society that guarantees civil rights and political expression.”
But Rodriguez, who declared that Venezuela would quit Organization of American States, repeatedly dismissed the American rhetoric. "I think the only way (the U.S.) can impose their will is with their Marines, who would be met with a swift response in Venezuela, should they dare," she said at one point.
As further evidence of the Trump administration’s harder edge, the president last week announced that he would be rolling back some of the diplomatic opening that Obama had created with Cuba, including re-imposing some restrictions on American travel to Cuba. Critics warned such a move would upset U.S. allies in Latin America, making it harder for the United States to gain partners to punish Venezuela. But Sullivan told reporters that he did not believe the Cuba stance had impacted the Venezuela talks, and the Trump administration officials interviewed Wednesday shared the same sentiment.
The officials warned Venezuela not to cause problems, economically or otherwise, elsewhere in Latin America to distract from the country’s own problems. “We would prefer that you not screw around with your neighbors,” one of the Trump administration officials said.
One way that Maduro could earn some points with the United States is by releasing Josh Holt, an American held prisoner there for nearly a year, the Trump administration officials said. Venezuelan authorities allege that Holt was stockpiling weapons and have cast him as part of a U.S. plot to undermine Maduro’s government. Holt’s family denies the allegations.
The Trump administration officials said they are worried about Holt because his health is deteriorating, and they urged Maduro to release him. They added, however, that releasing Holt would not lead to an end to U.S. criticism of Venezuela.
“It’s a gesture that we would see favorably, but it’s not a quid pro quo,” one official said.