By Mitra Taj
LIMA (Reuters) – U.S. national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday called for tougher international action against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro after Washington froze his government’s assets in a sharp escalation of its pressure on the leftist leader.
Addressing a summit on Venezuela in the Peruvian capital Lima, Bolton stressed that U.S. authorities can now target and sanction anyone, including foreigners, who supports Maduro’s government.
“The time to act is now. The United States is acting assertively to cut off Maduro financially, and accelerate a peaceful democratic transition,” Bolton said.
“We are sending a signal to third parties that want to do business with the Maduro regime: proceed with extreme caution.”
U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday that freezes the assets of the Venezuelan government and bans any transactions with it, an act that could ensnare its dealings with Russia and China as well as with Western companies.
It was the first U.S. asset freeze against an entire government in the Western Hemisphere in more than thirty years and gave U.S. authorities unprecedented powers over finances tied to the Caribbean nation.
U.S. sanctions on Venezuela are similar to the kind of measures imposed on Iran, North Korea and Syria, Bolton said. “Now, Venezuela is part of this very exclusive club of rogue states,” he said.
The executive order stopped short, however, of a full U.S. trade embargo of the kind imposed on Cuba, experts said, by excluding Venezuela’s still sizeable private sector.
Maduro, who took office in 2013 following the death of his political mentor President Hugo Chavez, has weathered several rounds of U.S. sanctions that have failed to peel away the crucial support of Venezuela’s military.
Continuing the state controls started under Chavez, Maduro has overseen one of the worst economic collapses in recent world history, leaving his nation of 30 million people with severe shortages of food and medicine despite sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves.
Bolton called for tougher international action against Maduro and accused him of only pretending to engage in European-backed negotiations with the opposition on the Caribbean island of Barbados to buy himself time.
“The time for dialogue is over,” Bolton said, warning Caracas’ close ally Russia not to provide it with further support. “Maduro is at the end of his rope.”
Bolton, one of the Trump administration’s most influential hawks on Venezuela, warned Russia against doubling down on its “bad bet,” and urged China to recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader if it wanted to recoup debt owed by Caracas.
Bolton said the U.S. government would ensure that Maduro ran out of ways to finance himself and he warned that a new government in Venezuela might not want to honour agreements made with countries that helped Maduro hang onto power.
Bolton reiterated that “all options are on the table” but stressed that Washington is seeking a peaceful transfer of power.
Most Western and Latin American democracies accuse Maduro of rigging elections last year and are calling for him to step down so the country can hold a fresh presidential ballot.
But U.S. policymakers have privately expressed frustration that European partners have not acted more forcefully to match U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and that the U.S.-led pressure campaign has not done more to loosen Maduro’s grip on power.
The summit, organised by Peru, a regional leader on demanding democratic reforms in Venezuela, had aimed to build support for new elections with Maduro’s allies. Yet Russia, China, Cuba, Turkey, Bolivia and Iran all boycotted the summit.
Responding to Trump’s asset freeze order in a statement on Wednesday, Venezuela’s foreign ministry said it was designed to “formalise a criminal economic, financial, and commercial blockade” of the country but said the government would continue with political dialogue with the opposition.
A humanitarian crisis that has already forced more than four million Venezuelans to flee could grow worse with the U.S. assets freeze.
A Peruvian government source said, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Bolton had told Peruvian officials in private on Monday that the measure would have the affect of about tripling current sanctions related to Venezuela.
Bolton said Washington had issued 21 licenses exempting some activities from the sanctions, from providing humanitarian goods to telecommunications and access to the internet, in order to help Guaido and his allies.
It also took “careful measures” to ensure the Venezuelan people had access to humanitarian goods and basic needs, Bolton said, without providing details.
However, the order could inflame the U.S.-China trade war if it hits Beijing hard, with Venezuela owing China oil deliveries as repayment for loans through 2021, said Fernando Cutz, a former top aide to Trump on the National Security Council.
(Reporting By Mitra Taj in Lima, Additional Reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Alistair Bell)