CARACAS — On Monday, the United States Department of the Treasury imposed new sanctions on Venezuela’s state-oil company PDVSA, which includes Citgo Petroleum Corporation. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin declared that the U.S. will “continue to use the full suite of its diplomatic and economic tools to support Interim President Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly, and the Venezuelan people’s efforts to restore their democracy.”
The value of PDVSA’s assets being frozen is estimated to be around $7 billion.
Started by the Obama administration, U.S. sanctions against Venezuela have mostly focused on the personal assets of high-profile government officers and their relatives, making Monday’s sanctions the most overreaching yet. In addition, the Bank of England refused the Maduro’s government request to withdraw $1.2 billion in gold on Sunday.
These actions follow last Wednesday’s events, when Guaidó, the country’s speaker of the National Assembly, accused President Nicolás Maduro of usurpation due to irregularities involving Maduro’s re-election. In front of supporters, Guaidó then declared his right to take over presidential functions. It’s uncertain what the outcome will be, but what is likely is that the Venezuelan military will play a key factor.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López gave a press conference last Thursday with the country’s joint chiefs of staff, stating that “a coup is in process against our institutions, our democracy, and our legitimate President Nicolás Maduro.” He affirmed that the armed forces will follow the Constitution and not accept a “parallel de facto government.”
With the motto “Always loyal, never traitors,” videos of units declaring their fidelity to Maduro and his government were released.
Junto al Estado Mayor Superior, y los hombres y mujeres de nuestra gloriosa y digna #FANB, nos preparamos para la defensa integral de la Patria. ¡Rumbo al Bicentenario de Angostura! pic.twitter.com/xdNhWKAVEq
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) January 27, 2019
At the same time, Reuters claimed the Venezuelan government had hired Russian private military contractors, which the Russian government denied.
In public gatherings, Guaidó and the rest of the opposition have been demanding the armed forces to stop following orders from Maduro and uphold Guaidó’s right (as stipulated on Article 233 of the Constitution) to be interim president and call for elections, guaranteeing an amnesty to those who do so. Several parliament members have assured that the amnesty won’t apply to those who violate human rights.
Primer vicepresidente de la AN, @edgarzambranoad: Cuando se habla de amnistía no estamos hablando de impunidad, son 2 cosas totalmente distintas, la Ley establece que no se protege la corrupción, el terrorismo y la violación de los DD. HH. #NoticiasEnVIVO: https://t.co/1QcPa6bsXs pic.twitter.com/4jlLkI7Tvs
— VIVOplay (@vivoplaynet) January 28, 2019
In the past few days, nationwide demonstrations organized by the opposition have been disbanded by security forces. Amnesty International in Venezuela, along with local NGOs such as Foro Penal and PROVEA, have declared that, from January 22–27, around 800 people have been detained during the protests, 77 of them reported underage, and at least 39 were killed by firearms.
791 detenidos por protestar en Venezuela en balance de Foro Penal
— amnistia . org 🕯 (@amnistia) January 28, 2019
#28Ene 10:30am Cifras actualizadas: @ForoPenal @_Provea @RedesAyuda 35 asesinados desde #21Ene . 850 detenciones de manifestantes desde #21Ene. 77 adolescentes (niños y niñas). Sólo #23Ene 696 detenciones. pic.twitter.com/0xXXp8qaAf
— Alfredo Romero (@alfredoromero) January 28, 2019
39 víctimas de fatales confirmadas durante la represión a las protestas con armas de fuego en Venezuela del 22 al 27 de enero en balance de @amnistia
12 casos adicionales de homicidios en verificación, llevaría el número de víctimas por protestar a 51 en todo el país. pic.twitter.com/SBXLPsg3CH
— Marcos Gómez 🕯 (@GomezMarcos) January 28, 2019
In a viral video with more than 169,000 views, the mother of a detained 14-year-old quoted her son’s description of his detention: “Mom, when I tell them I want to pee, they tell me to put my foot and then hit it with a plank.” She also said she has been unable to give him his epilepsy medication.
#URGENTE "Mamá cuando les digo que quiero hacer pipí me dan con una tabla en los pies, me pegan", Rosmelis Guilarte, narra parte de lo que le dijo su hijo epileptico de 14 años, detenido el #23Ene en #Bolívar. pic.twitter.com/h8NWSLzhxK #LiberenANiñosYAdolescentes
— ela ferris (@ElaFerris) January 28, 2019
“I find it surprising so many people have come out,” Andreina, a worker in a state-run drug rehabilitation center in Caracas, told Latino Rebels about the protests. (She asked to withhold her name.) “I think they have much less to lose than last time.”
Though she values the outreach to disadvantaged communities, Andreina explained that she’s tired of the political pressure she feels at her workplace.
“They text you to go to rallies, they tell you there’s a list,” she said. “But people have lost fear and you no longer see that bulk. People are losing fear.”
Maduro’s call to expel U.S. diplomats was extended for 30 days, but the U.S. has removed non-essential personnel. At the same time, Maduro has proposed negotiations for a bilateral “interests office,” modeled after how the U.S. and Cuba managed their relation for several decades.
As the situation grows tense, the international landscape surrounding Venezuela’s presidential crisis must “pick a side,” according to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Saturday, during a U.N. Security Council meeting on focused on Venezuela.
That same day, France, Germany, Spain and other European Union countries gave Maduro an ultimatum: either he accepts new elections in eight days or they declare Guaidó the legitimate president.
The U.S., meanwhile, designated Elliot Abrams as special envoy to Venezuela. Abrams is a controversial figure, to say the least. He was involved in Central America under the Reagan administration, was indicted for his involvement on the Iran-Contra Affair, then pardoned by President George H. W. Bush. The Guardian reported that Abrams “gave the nod” to the events of April 2002, when Hugo Chávez was briefly ousted from power.
“Do the United States have other interests beyond humanitarian aid? Of course! I don’t believe in selfless philanthropy,” Khristopher told Latino Rebels (He also declined to give his last name). Khristopher lives in the working-class community of Turmero and works as a research assistant at Carabobo University. “It’s up to Guaidó and those he appoints in the government if they let themselves manipulate beyond what the U.S. promises.”
On Monday night, a visibly-shaken Maduro addressed the nation, “I make you, Donald Trump, responsible of any violence that might happen in Venezuela.” He emphatically added that “if any blood runs in Venezuela, it will be blood on your hands, President Donald Trump.”
José González Vargas is a Venezuelan journalist who has written for several outlets, including Latino USA, Latino Rebels Caracas Chronicles and Into. He tweets from @Maxmordon.