Top Venezuela Envoy: More Sanctions Coming to Squeeze Maduro Regime

Despite setbacks, frustration, Trump administration's Venezuela policy is making progress

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro / Getty Images

The Trump administration is readying several new salvos of sanctions on Venezuela and its regional enablers as top U.S. officials work on a range of fronts to topple the regime of Nicolás Maduro, according to the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, who told the Washington Free Beacon that despite frustrations and setbacks, the United States remains steadfast in its support of exiled opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

Elliott Abrams, the U.S. envoy for Venezuela, told the Free Beacon in an interview on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this week that Maduro is facing more pressure than ever as the United States tightens its sanctions regime and works with Latin American and European leaders to further squeeze Maduro's regime, which the United States views as illegitimate.

While progress on deposing Maduro has not moved as swiftly as President Donald Trump and his officials would have hoped, Abrams said the U.N. forum provided American diplomats with a timely opportunity to pressure allies into tightening the economic screws on Maduro, who continues to violently repress opposition to his rule.

The next round of sanctions is more than likely to focus on Cuba's increasingly provocative role in bolstering Maduro, who has illicitly shipped many thousands of barrels of Venezuelan oil to Havana in violation of international sanctions, according to Abrams.

"Absolutely, there's no question about that," Abrams told the Free Beacon in response to questions about upcoming American sanctions. "Treasury announced some sanctions this week and you will see this continuing. And some of the sanctions are aimed more at Cuba and an effort to prevent the regime from getting what is now about 80,000 barrels a day to Cuba."

The sanctions will be biting, Abrams said, and impact any insurance or shipping company that engages in Venezuela's oil trade.

"We've been trying to use sanctions to prevent insurance companies, ship owners from engaging in that trade," Abrams explained. "If a ship is involved in this trade between Venezuela and Cuba, delivering Venezuelan oil to Cuba, that ship may not dock in an American port."

This tactic has served as a wake-up call to shipping companies that if they engage with Venezuela they will be fully blocked from the American marketplace.

"We get reports of longer and longer gas lines in Cuba proving the sanctions are having an effect," Abrams said.

Predictions earlier this year indicated that Maduro could be deposed in as little as several months.

While that has not come to fruition, Trump, Abrams, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remain committed to toppling Maduro's regime.

Multiple press reports during the past several months claiming the president and his top aides are frustrated at the lack of progress have proven untrue, Abrams said. Questions about this sentiment from top world leaders no longer come up in meetings, the official disclosed.

"That issue and the word frustration does not come up," Abrams said. "As I've been saying for some time, of course the president is frustrated, so is the secretary, so am I, so is Juan Guaidó, so is every Democratic leader in the hemisphere."

"But nobody asks about that anymore," Abrams said of his meetings with world leaders on the issue. "They were asking about that four months ago, five months ago, but you don't hear that anymore. The concerns you hear are about the humanitarian situation. There's been a lot of talk this week [at the U.N.] about what can be done to help the Venezuelan people."

In an effort to kick start humanitarian relief projects, the Trump administration recently announced some $120 million in U.S. funds. During the U.N. gathering, Trump and Pompeo announced another $118 million, around $36 million of which will be spent inside Venezuela. Another $82 million will be spent to aid refugees of the crisis.

"Our answer to people concerned about the humanitarian situation is absolutely right, we share it, and the United States has been and is being very generous and we urge other countries to contribute more," Abrams said, noting that he has personally pushed the European Union to contribute more.

Against the backdrop of frustration and dwindling momentum, this year's U.N. session allowed the Trump administration to clarify its views on the situation and galvanize greater support for its policies, Abrams said.

"This year's UNGA [U.N. General Assembly] was very important in clarifying for many foreign governments that U.S. policy toward Venezuela has not changed and will not change," Abrams said.

Media reports indicating otherwise are flatly untrue, he said.

Trump "is personally involved in the policy and the policy remains one of exerting pressure on the Maduro regime through, among other things, sanctions [and] diplomatic efforts," Abrams said. "We are clearly reaching out to other countries in this hemisphere to join in placing more sanctions on Venezuela, as Canada and Brazil have done."

Moreover, "we have used the meetings in New York this week with the E.U. and individual European countries to press them to go further on sanctioning the regime, to get them to do the individual sanctions they've talked about doing in the past, and in many cases said they didn't want to do while the Oslo talks were underway. Well, they're not underway [the Oslo talks] so the time has come. We were able to give those messages clearly to the Europeans."

The U.S. policy has also been bolstered by Maduro's increasingly violent tactics, which include killing and imprisoning opposition voices.

"I think countries are more clear about, first of all, the nature of the regime and here the reports of the U.N. High Commissioner on human rights helped. That report, with the update done by the U.N., shows that in the last year or two, … the regime has killed 7,000 Venezuelans. Killed them. Nothing gives a clearer impression of the brutality of this regime."

U.S. allies and others are finding it more difficult to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the Maduro regime, Abrams said.

"The attitude toward the Maduro regime has hardened in many places, both in the Western hemisphere and Europe," Abrams said. "I've been talking to Europeans and Latin Americans about sanctions since January and I hear many fewer criticisms. I think there's a much broader acceptance that given the nature of the Maduro regime you have to apply pressure, and sanctions are an effective and legitimate form of pressure. I hear much more support."