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U.S. Readies New Sanctions on Cuba, Russia for Backing Maduro in Venezuela

Protesters clash with security forces in Caracas

The Trump administration is readying a new salvo of sanctions on Cuba and Russia for their destabilizing activities in Venezuela that have helped prop up Nicolás Maduro, according to the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela, who told the Washington Free Beacon in a wide-ranging interview that America is still considering military options to deal with a worsening humanitarian crisis in the country as Maduro refuses to relinquish power.

Senior U.S. officials continue to hold regular talks with Juan Guaidó, whom the United States recognizes as Venezuela's interim president, as he seeks to build momentum for popular protests against Maduro, whom the United States accuses of stealing the country's elections.

As protests reach a breaking point, with scores of Venezuelans struggling to get basic necessities, Maduro has grown closer with traditional U.S. foes such as Russia, Cuba, and even Iran, according to Elliott Abrams, a veteran U.S. foreign policy hand who now serves as the Trump administration's special representative for Venezuela.

Abrams told the Free Beacon that the Trump administration continues to examine military options to deal with the crisis in Venezuela and that it is already working on a new series of sanctions packages to target Cuba and Russia for their backing of Maduro.

While the Trump administration issued wide range of sanctions on both countries earlier this year, Abrams said that more are coming, despite rumors the administration has exhausted its options on this front.

"We will have more sanctions," Abrams told the Free Beacon during an interview in his office at the State Department.

"You will see over the next weeks additional steps we are taking," Abrams said, declining to discuss specifics in advance of formal announcements. "There is a long list and we are basically going down the list."

Addressing scuttlebutt among foreign policy insiders that the United States has run out of sanctions, Abrams said, "Boy, is that not true."

Sanctions are likely to target Venezuela's oil, gold, and drug trafficking markets, all of which have been lucrative for rogue allies such as Cuba and Russia.

As Guaido concentrates on mounting his opposition and assuming the presidency, Abrams said the United States is assuming the responsibility of targeting Russia and Cuba for their ongoing support for Maduro. Both regimes have helped Maduro retain his grip on the country by filling his police forces and bolstering his intelligence gathering abilities.

"Cuba, Russia, that's something else," Abrams said. "That's really something that falls with us to deal with, not Juan Guaido."

"You see the steps we've begun to take against Cuba … and there are others that we are prepared to take and will take to show the Cuban regime there is a very heavy price it is going to pay for its conduct in and toward Venezuela," Abrams said.

"With Russia, we have an options list," Abrams disclosed. "We're prepared to take actions there. You will see again over the next few weeks the steps the United States is taking, for the same basic reason, to show the Russian government there is a price to be paid here."

Russia and Cuba are not the only concerns for the United States. Over the past several months, as the situation has worsened, Iran has increased its presence in Venezuela, Abrams said. As with Russia and Cuba, Iran is seeking to make common cause with Maduro's anti-American regime.

To that end, the Iranians have sent scores of intelligence officials to work with Maduro.

"We've seen more solidarity from Iran, from the regime in the last couple of months," Abrams said in response to questions about Iran's growing presence in Latin America. "If you were to look at the frequency of Iranian broadcast messaging, propaganda, it's considerably higher now because they see the regime as being in danger."

"There are Iranians on the ground," Abrams disclosed, noting that they are not nearly as prevalent as those sent by Cuba. "We're talking more about intelligence types. But they're increasing their commitment to the regime."

Iran, which is facing its own barrage of U.S. sanctions on its oil trade, sees "a common interest here in opposing the expansion of democracy" in Latin America, Abrams explained.

While the situation on the ground is shifting minute-by-minute, the military option remains a viable choice for President Donald Trump, Abrams said.

"The president says all options are on the table because they are. They exist. No one can foretell the future. Where are we going to be in three months for example?"

"We also know there's been an increase over last the year or two in drug trafficking from Venezuela," he said. "We know the Russian presence is greater. We know the Iranian presence is greater. The president is simply stating the facts. There are military options. They exist."

"If you ask what would lead him to take one of those options, we can't predict the future. I would only say that if you had said to George H.W. Bush in 1988 when he was vice president, ‘You're going to end up with a military action in Panama,' he would have said, ‘You're nuts.' Because you never know which direction things are going to go. What we always say is our desire is for peaceful change to restore Venezuelan to the democracy it for so many decades had."

As Maduro becomes more desperate, he is resorting to increased violence and repression.

"More soldiers and police out in the street. More physical violence. More censorship. They know that social media are used to get people to gather so they interfere," Abrams said. "There are times when they bring down WhatsApp completely. When Guaido speaks, he's on CNN Spanish. They take down CNN Spanish. They are more scared, so therefore they are more vicious in their suppression of dissent."

It remains unclear to U.S. officials such as Abrams how long the crisis will continue. The outcome, however, they view as certain: Maduro will fall.

"What I am certainly predicting is the outcome," Abrams said. "And I think we really saw this week how really weak this regime is. Yes, they have police and they can go beat people up. Yes, Maduro is still in the presidential palace, but it's a regime that has no domestic support. It relies on guns, beating, propaganda, and Cubans and Russians. It is an untenable situation."

"The fundamental matter [is] that however long he stays in power there isn't really anything he can do for the people of Venezuela," Abrams said on Maduro.

"I think that, unfortunately for Venezuelans, with each passing week, their own situation in many ways becomes worse," Abrams said. "It can't really be solved till Maduro goes."