The United States issued a new round of sanctions against Venezuela on Sept. 25, hours before President Donald Trump excoriated the socialist regime in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly.
The State Department sanctioned Cilia Adela Flores de Maduro, the wife of socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro, as well as several current and former Venezuelan officials. Hours later, Trump called on members of the UN to join the United States in a call to restore democracy in Venezuela.
“Currently, we are witnessing a human tragedy, as an example, in Venezuela. More than 2 million people have fled the anguish inflicted by the socialist Maduro regime and its Cuban sponsors,” Trump said.
“Virtually everywhere socialism or communism has been tried, it has produced suffering, corruption, and decay. Socialism’s thirst for power leads to expansion, incursion, and oppression. All nations of the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings to everyone,” the president added.
The measure sanctioned six officials in Maduro’s “inner circle,” including Vice President Delcy Rodriguez and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, and “blocked” a $20 million private jet identified as belonging to a front-man of a top official.
In a media note accompanying the sanctions, the State Department noted that the measure is intended to change behavior and can be lifted once the people sanctioned “take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order, refuse to take part in human rights abuses and speak out against abuses committed by the government, and combat corruption in Venezuela.”
Since taking power, Maduro has taken steps to consolidate control over the oil-rich nation, jailing opposition leaders, limiting the powers of the legislature, and creating a parallel Congress with limitless powers.
The vast majority of Venezuelans have difficulty obtaining food and medicine and inflation has soared 200,000 percent, triggering a mass exodus of Venezuelans to neighboring countries.
Maduro claims he is a victim of an economic war waged by Washington. He justifies the crackdown on opposition leaders by accusing them of attempts to assassinate him.
Maduro is still seeking a face-to-face meeting with Trump. The White House declined his request last year demanding that he restore Democracy in Venezuela first.
“I’m surrounded by sanctioned (officials),” he said. “Thank you, Donald Trump, for surrounding me with dignity.”
The White House issued several rounds of sanctions against Venezuela since Trump assumed office. In May, after Maduro won an election which American officials called a sham, the United States issued a broad set of financial sanctions which effectively blocked Venezuela from access to credit markets.
According to the United States migration and refugee organizations, more than 2.3 million Venezuelans are living abroad including 1.6 million who fled the country since 2015.
A group of U.S. senators on Tuesday said they had introduced legislation seeking to address the crisis in Venezuela by, among other things, tightening sanctions and providing $40 million in humanitarian aid.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence separately said on Tuesday the United States would provide an additional $48 million to “partners in the region” to confront the “humanitarian crisis” caused by the growing migration of Venezuelans.
Maduro refuted the UN refugee numbers, saying in September that only 600,000 left the country and that 9 in 10 want to come back.
Maduro has hung to power in part because of continued support of members of the armed forces such as Padrino, 55, who was appointed defense minister in 2014.
The U.S. Treasury said that Padrino helped ensure the military’s loyalty to Maduro. In the past, it has accused high-ranking officers of corruption and undermining human rights.
First lady Cilia Flores, a lawyer and former attorney general who also ran the country’s legislature, frequently appears at public events with Maduro and is seen an important behind-the-scenes power broker.
The Treasury also said a Gulfstream 200 private jet located in Florida had been identified as belonging to a frontman of Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello, who the United States accuses of being involved in drug trafficking.
Separately, several Latin American nations plan to present a complaint against Maduro’s government for alleged human rights abuses with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Peruvian Trade Minister Roger Valencia said in an interview.
The countries, which include Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina, hope to submit the complaint on Wednesday and were seeking backing from more countries to put pressure on Maduro.
Trump offered a similar criticism of Venezuela and socialism during his UN address last year. The president is a vocal critic of socialism and communism and has used impoverished regimes like Venezuela and North Korea to highlight the stark consequences that result from these ideologies.
Trump suggested that the Maduro regime could be “toppled very quickly” by Venezuela’s military. The president did not rule out military action by the United States, but declined to comment on specifics.
Reuters contributed to this report.