White House

Trump readies ‘other tools’ beyond blocking assets to target Maduro

Donald Trump talks about the U.S. humanitarian aid blocked at the border of Venezuela and Colombia

United States President Donald Trump talks about the blocked U.S. humanitarian aid at the Venezuelan border during a political rally at the FIU-Ocean Bank Convocation Center in Miami, Florida on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.
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United States President Donald Trump talks about the blocked U.S. humanitarian aid at the Venezuelan border during a political rally at the FIU-Ocean Bank Convocation Center in Miami, Florida on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.

Sweeping U.S. sanctions on Venezuela announced on Monday were the latest effort by the Trump administration to pressure the nation’s embattled leader, Nicolás Maduro, out of power. But it is not the last.

Two senior administration officials told McClatchy that additional non-military options are in the works that would further isolate Maduro and his aides beyond the embargo-like measures imposed on Monday, which block his government from accessing property in U.S. jurisdiction and prohibit transactions with it.

“This process has been a lengthy process, all without getting out,” one of the officials said, referring to how their work on the new sanctions was kept under wraps. “That is something Maduro should fear, and we are working on other stuff as well.”

One official said the new move — a rare deployment of tools that have not been utilized in the Western Hemisphere in over three decades — was months in the making and reflective of an interagency process free of the friction, disagreement and leaks that have frequently encumbered signature foreign policy moves pursued by the Trump administration.

“This is not the case of one agency disagreeing with the other,” Florida Republican Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart said. “And this is not a political decision; it has nothing to do with an electoral interest.”

Florida, a key swing state, is the home of thousands of Venezuelans who fled from their country after socialist Hugo Chávez came to power in the late 1990s.

Díaz-Balart, along with Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, has been in frequent contact with the National Security Council to discuss Venezuela policy.

Rubio and Scott were not available for interviews this week, staffers said. Both released press statements praising the new sanctions.

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“We didn’t have to convince the president about the situation in Cuba and Venezuela,” Díaz-Balart said. “The president and his team, they know very well the extreme urgency of the matter and the dangers that the Maduro regime poses for its people and neighboring countries.”

The U.S. is among more than 50 nations that recognize Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s interim president, and is working to expand the coalition, according to a second official.

The political crisis surrounding Maduro’s reign has led more than 4 million Venezuelans to flee across borders, prompting the largest humanitarian crisis in the hemisphere.

The president’s aides worked with the Treasury Department and USAID over several weeks to ensure the new measures were contoured to avoid criticism often leveled against the U.S. embargo of Cuba: that it disadvantages the people as well as the leadership.

Monday’s action falls short of a full embargo — an intentional decision, one senior administration official asserted, intended to mitigate harm to the average Venezuelan.

The process was extensive because of “the work put into ensuring that this does not harm everyday Venezuelans’ access to the flow of humanitarian goods and services,” the official said.

The sanctions’ exceptions include the sale of food and medicines but also telecommunications, internet services and personal remittances.

The White House announced the move alongside a modest but coordinated social media campaign across government agencies, including the Treasury, State and Commerce departments, and just as National Security Advisor John Bolton led a U.S. delegation to Lima, Peru, for talks on the Venezuela crisis.

Hours earlier, Trump had said he was considering a “blockade” of Venezuela, initially interpreted as a physical effort to block the nation’s 1,750-mile coastline. But Maduro’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that the new measures were an effort to “formalize a criminal economic, financial, and commercial blockade that has already started.”

While White House officials emphasized their focus remains on economic tools — in Lima, Bolton emphasized the effectiveness of past embargoes against corrupt governments in Panama and Nicaragua — they underscored U.S. military preparedness, as well.

“There are a variety of other tools we can leverage,” one senior administration official stated. “As the president has said, all options are on the table.”

While in Lima, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross offered an aspirational speech outlining Venezuela’s economic future should Maduro depart.

“Initially upon the end of the Maduro dictatorship and return to democracy,” Ross said, “the U.S. will ease sanctions, promote domestic and international trade credit, deploy technical advisors, and engage international financial institutions to build confidence in Venezuela’s new economic policies.”

Tough rhetoric on Maduro has played well for Republicans among Florida’s Venezuelan community. But talks on an embargo or blockade do not have the same ring for many nationals who remain in Venezuela, some experts say.

“This is a policy that plays well among the kinds of people that Marco Rubio talks to in Florida,” said Geoff Ramsey, assistant director of Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America. “But when many of our colleagues in Venezuela heard about this [comparison] to Cuba, they thought, ‘do we have to endure another 60 years of this?’ The optics of this were calculated almost solely for domestic consumption.”

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Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
Nora Gámez Torres estudió periodismo y comunicación en La Habana y Londres. Tiene un doctorado en sociología y desde el 2014 cubre temas cubanos para el Nuevo Herald y el Miami Herald. Su trabajo ha sido reconocido con premios de Florida Society of News Editors y Society for Profesional Journalists.
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