By Lesley Wroughton and Deisy Buitrago
WASHINGTON/CARACAS (Reuters) – The United States imposed sanctions on Friday on Venezuela’s development bank, Bandes, a day after the Trump administration warned there would be consequences for the arrest by Venezuelan authorities of opposition leader Juan Guaido’s top aide.
The U.S. Treasury said it was slapping the sanctions on Banco de Desarrollo Economico y Social de Venezuela, including its subsidiaries in Uruguay and Bolivia. It also imposed sanctions on state-owned Venezuelan commercial banks, including Banco de Venezuela and Banco Bicentenario.
In a statement, Venezuela’s foreign ministry said it “energetically rejects the unilateral, coercive, arbitrary and illegal measures” taken by the Trump administration. It said the sanctions would affect millions of Venezuelan people and companies who use the banks.
Congress head Guaido, who invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency in January, has accused Bandes of being used by President Nicolas Maduro’s government to funnel money outside Venezuela.
The White House said in a statement it was committed to preventing Maduro’s government from stealing Venezuela’s resources and from arresting those pushing for political change.
Guaido’s chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, was detained in a pre-dawn raid on Thursday, sparking vows of reprisals from the United States, which along with most Western countries backs Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
“The United States will not tolerate the arrest of peaceful democratic actors, including members of the democratically-elected Venezuelan National Assembly and those Venezuelans working with interim President Juan Guaido,” the White House said in a statement.
In a tweet on Friday evening, Guaido said he had been informed that Marrero was being transported from jail to court. He demanded Marrero be freed, calling the judges who would hear his case “complicit with the dictatorship.”
Venezuelan authorities said on Thursday that an arms cache had been seized from Marrero’s house and accused him of planning attacks against political figures. Guaido said guns had been planted by intelligence agents.
The U.S. Treasury said Maduro tried to move $1 billion (£756.6 million) out of Venezuela through Banco Bandes Uruguay in early 2019 as he came under increasing pressure from the United States and other countries in the region to step down.
Bandes has received billions of dollars over the past decade from the China Development Bank, in exchange for oil, which the Venezuelan government used to fund infrastructure projects.
Uruguay has stayed neutral on Venezuela’s political crisis and has called for dialogue, while China, Russia and regional ally Cuba have backed Maduro.
But the sanctions on Bandes could test Beijing’s ties with Caracas, since it would impede Venezuela from restructuring its $20 billion debt with China, opposition lawmaker Angel Alvarado said on Friday.
“That makes it even less likely that China will step in to save Maduro,” Alvarado wrote on Twitter. Guaido and his allies have repeatedly argued that China and Russia are more likely to collect on their loans to Venezuela with Maduro out of office.
The sanctions freeze assets belonging to the banks and subsidiaries, and prevent U.S. citizens from any dealings with them. They follow a raft of other sanctions imposed by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump in recent months against Maduro, top government officials, and state oil firm PDVSA.
Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton tweeted earlier on Friday: “BANDES bank is to Venezuela’s financial sector what PDVSA is to its oil sector. This action will severely affect any attempted currency movements by Maduro and his cronies moving forward. Do not test the resolve of this Administration.”
It said that Visa, Mastercard and American Express would be prohibited from facilitating transactions involving the blacklisted commercial banks, beginning in March 2020. That would complicate basic purchases in a country stricken by hyperinflation and a sixth year of economic contraction.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, additional reporting by Angus Berwick and Luc Cohen in Caracas, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)