Eight more Venezuelans tied to President Nicolás Maduro’s government, including the brother of the late President Hugo Chávez, were hit Wednesday with U.S. financial sanctions over their involvement with the South American country’s newly inaugurated legislative superbody, which the international community has decried as the start of a dictatorship.
The Trump administration will freeze U.S. assets, ban U.S. travel and prohibit Americans from doing business with the newly sanctioned Venezuelans, who are current and former government members and a leader of Maduro’s security forces, which the U.S. has accused of violently repressing dissent.
The eight people are: Adán Chávez, brother of the late president and former governor of the state of Barinas; Francisco Ameliach, governor of the state of Carabobo and leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV); Tania D’Amelio Cardiet, member of the National Electoral Council; Hermann Escarrá, constitutional attorney and constituent assembly delegate; Erika Farías, minister for urban agriculture; Bladimir Lugo Armas, colonel with the Bolivarian National Guard and head of legislative palace security accused of being involved “in several acts of violence” against opposition lawmakers in parliament; Carmen Meléndez Rivas, constituent assembly delegate; Ramón Darío Vivas Velasco, constituent assembly delegate and PSUV leader.
They will join Maduro, Vice President Tareck El Aissami and 20 other current and former members of the Venezuelan government, military and judiciary who have been sanctioned as the oil-rich country’s democracy crumbles. The pace of sanctions has quickened after four months of deadly street unrest following an economic collapse that resulted in widespread food and medicine shortages.
“President Maduro swore in this illegitimate constituent assembly to further entrench his dictatorship, and continues to tighten his grip on the country,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “This regime’s disregard of the will of the Venezuelan people is unacceptable, and the United States will stand with them in opposition to tyranny until Venezuela is restored to a peaceful and prosperous democracy.”
At least one of the latest Venezuelans to be sanctioned, Escarrá, has owned South Florida properties. So have members of his immediate family.
Escarrá’s daughter, Oasis Escarrá Muñoz, paid $650,000 for a two-bedroom Miami condo overlooking Biscayne Bay in 2015, Miami-Dade County property records show. No mortgage was recorded with the purchase.
In 1996, Escarrá and his wife, Oasis Lis de Muñoz, bought a Pompano Beach country club condo for $82,000. Court records show the unit was later foreclosed on and sold. The couple also bought a single-family home in Coconut Creek for $244,000 in 1999, selling it at a slight mark-up three years later.
The Escarrá family also started several Florida corporations, including a now-defunct organic juice business.
No penalties targeting Venezuela’s crucial oil industry appear imminent, though other economic sanctions are still possible.
“I support the president sanctioning these corrupt Maduro regime officials,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has pushed for further penalties against Venezuela. “The time has now come for the president to act on his promise to impose significant economic sanctions on the illegitimate Maduro dictatorship.”
The White House has been pleased with so far with the effect of its existing individual sanctions, intended to fracture Maduro’s socialist party circle, and has been focused on garnering international support for additional actions.
“It’s hurting them where it hurts the most: their pockets,” Carlos Díaz-Rosillo, White House director of policy and interagency coordination, told the Miami Herald in a recent interview. “The menu of options that we have includes other types of sanctions, but what we use really depends on what the government of Venezuela does.”
Countries in Latin America and Europe have joined the U.S. in condemning the new assembly, which was elected July 30 under suspected massive fraud. On Tuesday, 17 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Mexico, met on an emergency basis in Lima and formally condemned the “breakdown of democratic order,” saying they would not recognize any actions taken by the “illegitimate” constituent assembly.
“What we have in Venezuela is a dictatorship,” Peruvian Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Luna said, adding that some countries might take individual actions against Venezuela.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos used similar language.
“A dictatorship is getting under way,” Santos said in a Colombian TV interview. “They’re doing away with democracy.”
The U.S. and its allies have maintained Venezuela’s rightful legislature is the opposition-held parliament. The new assembly held session in parliament’s chambers Tuesday and passed a decree declaring its decisions will supersede those of any other branch of government.
“This is the beginning of our response” against assembly delegates, a senior White House official said Wednesday. The official called Tuesday’s Lima Declaration “a critical and almost historic moment for the region to come together.”
“We see this as a multilateral effort,” the official said, though no other country has imposed sanctions.
In a parallel meeting Tuesday of the regional ALBA bloc, comprising Venezuela’s leftist Latin American allies such as Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Maduro continued his defiance, calling out the U.S. and other countries for what he characterized as right-wing “imperialism.”
“These extremist forces intend to impose a policy of aggression, of threats, against all of Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said. “Here is Venezuela, which will never give in.”
The assembly, tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution, was installed Friday. It began wielding its virtually unlimited powers Saturday, dismissing the country’s chief prosecutor, who was investigating the government for election fraud, corruption and human-rights abuses. The Treasury Department cited attorney general Luisa Ortega’s ouster as one of the actions prompting its latest sanctions.
On Tuesday, the United Nations human rights office, which denounced excessive force used by Maduro’s security forces to suppress dissent, called on the government to protect the ousted attorney general.
Also Tuesday, the Venezuelan Supreme Court handed down a 15-month jail sentence to opposition Mayor Ramón Muchacho of Chacao for allowing anti-government protesters to block roads. Muchacho, who has been in hiding since June, is the fourth opposition mayor recently convicted by the court, whose eight constitutional justices were sanctioned by the U.S. in May.
The Trump administration had threatened to sanction all 545 assembly delegates. But many are lowly socialist party members, including students, with no public profile to speak of. Still unsanctioned are the biggest names in the assembly, including President Delcy Rodríguez, top deputies Aristóbulo Istúriz and Isaías Rodríguez, powerful delegate Diosdado Cabello and delegate Cilia Flores, who is Maduro’s wife. The White House declined to comment as to why.
The U.S. has said its list of potential future Venezuelan sanction targets is long, but picking names, and verifying their birth dates and other key identifying information, takes time — and the U.S. wants to deploy sanctions strategically. Going after the oil industry is considered a measure of last resort.
On Sunday, armed men dressed in camouflage looted a Venezuelan military base in the middle of the night, clashing with security forces and leaving two dead. A manhunt is under way for some who fled with a cache of weapons.
McClatchy White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report from Washington.