The Trump administration is ratcheting up pressure on Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro to force him to address the country's deepening humanitarian crisis, release political prisoners unconditionally, and overhaul its election process ahead of a May presidential ballot.
The Trump administration this week clamped down further on Maduro's government to isolate the regime and threatened oil sanctions in an effort to push for the release of several U.S. citizens imprisoned in Caracas. Additionally, the administration is seeking ways to help hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing hunger and economic turmoil.
The Trump administration on Tuesday announced that it is providing $2.5 million for emergency food and medicine assistance to Venezuelan migrants in Colombia as a first step to try to alleviate the growing humanitarian crisis which is spilling over into neighboring countries and impacting the region.
Maduro has so far refused to accept humanitarian aid from the United States or other international bodies, arguing that such offers were only thinly veiled attempts to undermine his government.
The emergency relief money comes after the Trump administration stepped up its actions against Maduro on Monday, barring Americans from engaging in transactions with Venezuela's new crypto-currency, the petro, and slapping four more government officials with targeted sanctions.
U.S. administration officials also repeated recent threats that they are still weighing whether to impose far more damaging oil sanctions if Maduro doesn't free political prisoners and provide evidence of tangible reforms to the upcoming election.
A senior Trump administration official for the first time Monday referred to former Citgo executives—at least four of whom are naturalized U.S. citizens and one other who is a U.S. citizen from Utah—as "hostages" of the Venezuelan government.
The official, speaking to reporters on a conference call convened to discuss new sanctions against the Maduro government, called for the immediate release of the Americans.
Maduro's government detained several Venezuelan-Americans in Caracas shortly before Thanksgiving, calling the executives "corrupt, thieving traitors" whom they planned to try for treason.
The Maduro government arrested the Texas-based executives during an event at the state oil company's PDVSA's headquarters in Caracas and has refused to release them despite demands from the United States.
In addition to the Citgo executives, the Maduro government has imprisoned Joshua Holt, a Mormon missionary, and his Venezuelan wife, Thamara Caleno, for more than a year on weapons charges, which they vigorously deny.
"These individuals have been illegitimately arrested and detained and have been used as bargaining chips," the senior administration official said Monday. "As we saw with the Venezuelan state governor's visit to Washington several weeks ago, these individuals are bargaining chips that the Maduro dictatorship is using as hostages and we are still calling for them to be released."
A Venezuelan state governor traveled to Washington March 9 in an attempt to open a back channel of talks with members of Congress to negotiate Holt's return. The visit by Rafael Lacava, governor of Venezuela's Carabobo state, to Washington came as new U.S. sanctions against Venezuela loomed.
Lacava's visit to Washington came after a senior staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee visited Venezuela in February and met with Maduro to discuss Holt's possible release.
Staffers for Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) have attended State Department briefings on the imprisoned U.S. citizens and have met with families of the hostages, as well as with Citgo executives in Houston.
Rubio's office also confirmed that it sent an email warning staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations office not to meet with Lacava during his U.S. visit. The email warned that Lacava has been implicated numerous times as someone involved in money laundering and other criminal activity.
Rubio staffers also argued that the purpose of Lacava's visit was to negotiate Holt's release in "exchange for sanctions relief for the Maduro regime and/or the release of Maduro's nephews."
The United States recently prosecuted and convicted two nephews of Venezuela's first lady, Cilia Flores, on charges of drug trafficking. They were sentenced in mid-December to 18 years each in U.S. prison.
"Senator Rubio has been in contact with the White House, State, and Treasury since yesterday, and no one in the executive branch intends to meet with this Lacava, especially to discuss such a ridiculous proposition," the email from Rubio's office to staffers said. "However, it is our understanding that Lacava will be seeking meetings on Capitol Hill to discuss this nonetheless."
"Senator Rubio wanted me to make your office aware that the primary purpose of such meetings will be so Maduro can portray himself as a strong leader at a time when many in his own government and military are harboring serious doubts about his continued rule," the email states.
The Rubio staffer also warned that Maduro would use the news of high-level meetings "to sow confusion and doubt in the minds of our regional allies about the commitment of the United States to sanctions."
"Joshua Holt it not a prisoner in Venezuela—he is a hostage," the email states. "The charges against him are absurd, and his treatment while in captivity has been abhorrent. He has been repeatedly denied consular visits among other indignities. He should be released immediately, without conditions.
"The fact that Rafael Lacava is even coming to the U.S. to negotiate a sanctions-for-hostage deal proves that Holt is being held as leverage," the email stated.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) also has reached out to the president, vice president, State Department, and United Nations for help on Holt's case.
A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. government continues to call for Holt's "immediate release from detention on humanitarian ground" and expressed "grave concerns" about his health and lack of access to proper medical care.
"The United States continues to follow this case closely and U.S. officials have repeatedly been granted consular access to Mr. Holt, meeting with him as recently as February," the spokesperson said. "We will continue to seek renewed consular access."
The spokesperson would not say whether U.S. government officials met with Lacava during his visit.
"We meet with Venezuelans from across the political spectrum, including with the government of Venezuela; however, we typically do not comment on whether private diplomatic meetings have even occurred, much less comment on content," said the spokesperson.
On the imprisoned Citgo executives, who have dual U.S. and Venezuelan citizenship, the spokesman said the U.S. embassy has asked the Venezuelan government to grant immediate consular access to "all U.S. citizen detainees there."
"We call on the Venezuelan government to respect all human rights, including the rights of those in detention," the spokesperson said.
While the Venezuelan government does not have a legal obligation under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations to provide consular notification and access to dual nationals, the spokesperson said the U.S. government "always urges foreign governments to follow consular notification and access procedures as a matter of courtesy."
Maduro, in a televised broadcast days after the Citgo executives' arrests, acknowledged that the U.S. embassy had requested that its citizens be freed. He mocked the demand and said the men were all Venezuelan and were involved in alleged wrongdoing.
"These are people born in Venezuela, they're Venezuelan, and they're going to be judged for being corrupt, thieving traitors," Maduro said in the broadcast. "They're properly behind bars, and they should go to the worst prison in Venezuela."
The executives reportedly include former acting Citgo President Jose Pereira, who has Venezuelan citizenship and U.S. permanent residency. The five other imprisoned former Citgo executives include: Tomeu Vadell, vice president of refining operations; Alirio Zambrano, vice president and general manager of Corpus Christi refinery; Jose Luis Zambrano, vice president of shared services; Gustavo Cardenas, vice president of strategic shareholder relations, government and public affairs; Jorge Toledo, vice president of supply and marketing.