By Roberta Rampton, Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Immediately after he turned against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the United States lifted economic sanctions against Manuel Cristopher, a general who served as the leftist leader’s spy chief.
But other former Venezuelan officials will find it more difficult to get off a U.S. sanctions list unless they follow Cristopher’s lead and take bold, tangible action against Maduro, say people in and close to the Trump administration.
“It depends on people being willing to step forward and do what they need to do,” said Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who has become a leading voice in the crafting of President Donald Trump’s Venezuela policy.
“If it helps achieve a peaceful transition to democracy, even though some of these individuals have done terrible things, I would be open to it,” Rubio told Reuters.
Using economic sanctions to turn high-ranking military officers and other top officials against Maduro is key to the U.S. attempt to remove the socialist president, whose country is suffering an economic collapse and a political crisis.
But the Trump administration wants to see “concrete and meaningful actions” before lifting sanctions on other former Maduro aides.
Some of them – like ex-diplomat and retired general Hugo Carvajal – have U.S. criminal charges against them which could make it politically more difficult to scrap sanctions.
The Trump administration speedily removed sanctions on Cristopher on May 7 as a “carrot” to try to lure other big figures to defect.
The move was aimed at supporting Juan Guaido, the opposition leader and head of the National Assembly who invoked Venezuela’s constitution in January to declare himself interim president, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate. The United States and most Western nations backed Guaido, who Maduro derides as a puppet of the Americans.
Cristopher had supported an April 30 failed uprising against Maduro and was instrumental in freeing Guaido’s political mentor Leopoldo Lopez from house arrest.
Scrapping sanctions on him was seen as a way to fortify an olive branch from Guaido to officials in Maduro’s government – and pick off those nervous about Maduro’s ability to survive Venezuela’s political crisis, a White House official said.
“We want to add to the credibility of the amnesty offer that Guaido has made,” said the official.
The Venezuelan opposition in Washington has privately urged the Trump administration to accelerate the lifting of sanctions on more officials to encourage more defections, a person familiar with the discussions said.
The United States has blacklisted more than 150 Venezuelan officials and businesses over the past decade for reasons ranging from alleged participation in drug trafficking to corruption and human rights abuses.
Normally, getting off the U.S. sanctions list can take months – sometimes years – of negotiations with the Treasury Department.
Even for foreign officials with no assets in the United States, being blacklisted can make it impossible to do business in U.S. dollars outside their country. Many European, Asian and Latin American banks screen potential clients using the list, even when they are not legally required to do so.
“In Colombia, they call being on the list ‘muerte civil’ – civil death – because you can’t get a bank account, you can’t get a credit card, you can’t get anything,” said Adam Smith, a senior Treasury Department official in the Obama administration and now a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher law firm.
Being blacklisted also crimps the lifestyle of Venezuelan officials’ families. “These people’s wives can’t shop in the U.S. You don’t know how much that hurts,” a second U.S. senior official said.
Cristopher’s delisting subsequently boosted U.S. contacts with military officials “fairly dramatically”, a third senior administration official said, without giving further details.
In another case, television mogul Raul Gorrin was put on the sanctions list in January after he was charged in the United States with bribing officials with property, Rolex watches and luxury cars in a currency exchange scheme.
Gorrin then acted as an intermediary between the opposition and several senior members of the Venezuelan government ahead of the failed uprising, trying to convince Maduro’s aides to help create a transition government in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions against them, according to two people familiar with the matter.
In mid-March, the Treasury Department quietly delisted Gorrin’s wife and the wife of a business partner of his, but sanctions still remain against Gorrin himself. Gorrin and his U.S. defence lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Other high-profile Maduro defectors remain on the sanctions list.
General Carlos Rotondaro was sanctioned last year for incompetent management of a state-run medicine program. He broke with Maduro and fled to Colombia two months ago, but has not been delisted.
Rotondaro has held four meetings at the U.S. embassy in Bogota, and has broached the issue of being delisted, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Two other generals – Cliver Alcala and Carvajal – remain on the list despite also having split with Maduro. Carvajal is in prison in Spain awaiting potential extradition to the United States on drug charges.
Rotondaro and Alcala did not respond to requests for comment, and a lawyer for Carvajal could not be immediately reached for comment.
Asked why the generals had not already been delisted, U.S. officials declined to comment on the specific cases. “The United States continues to make clear that the removal of sanctions is available for persons who take concrete and meaningful actions to help restore constitutional democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela,” one said.
Also weighing on some possible defectors are U.S. criminal indictments and investigations that they could face even if sanctions are lifted. U.S. officials have been vague about willingness to drop any prosecutions.
While Cristopher’s delisting was practically automatic, others will face tougher criteria, the second senior U.S. official said.
“The cost of being delisted will increase over time. The time for folks to get the best deal is now,” the official said.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Patricia Zengerle, Alexandra Alper and Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Brian Ellsworth, Mayela Armas, Cornia Rodriquez Pons and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)