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With Tougher U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela, Bolton Says ‘Time for Dialogue Is Over’

CARACAS, Venezuela — An international summit meeting on Tuesday that was meant to break the political stalemate in Venezuela became a one-sided showcase for the United States’ toughest sanctions yet on President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime.

During the conference of more than 50 countries in Lima, Peru, the Trump administration rejected compromises proposed by international mediators and some Latin American nations as it doubled down on its so-called maximum pressure policy to oust Mr. Maduro.

Mr. Maduro’s government wasn’t invited, prompting his allies — Cuba, China, Russia and Turkey — to decline the invitation to the meeting.

“We take this step to deny Maduro access to the global financial system and to further isolate him internationally,” John R. Bolton, the administration’s national security adviser, said in Lima, outlining a freeze on Venezuelan state assets in the United States. “We want to send a message to third parties wanting to do business with the Maduro regime: There’s no need to risk your business interests in the U.S. for the purposes of profiting from a corrupt and dying government.”

The escalating American sanctions come amid a stalemate between Mr. Maduro and the head of Venezuela’s opposition movement, Juan Guaidó. Both men claim to lead the troubled country.

Mr. Trump’s support was essential to Mr. Guaidó’s international acceptance this year as Venezuela’s rightful leader. But the newest round of economic penalties may get in the way of a negotiated solution being pursued by Mr. Guaidó and some Latin American countries that are desperate to end the eight-month standoff.

On Tuesday, the conflicting strategies were laid bare.

In Lima, Mr. Bolton said “the time for dialogue is over.” In Caracas, Mr. Guaidó said conversations with Mr. Maduro’s government — which the opposition hopes will lead to new free elections — will continue.

Harold Trinkunas, a Venezuelan politics expert at Stanford University, said the new sanctions may now give Venezuelan opposition leaders leverage to seek concessions from Mr. Maduro’s government by asking the Trump administration to back off.

But he expressed doubt that the strategy would succeed.

“The Maduro regime — which doesn’t like the sanctions — has survived,” Mr. Trinkunas said. “So it makes sense for them to stand pat and wait out the opposition.”

Eight months after the United States and its allies declared Mr. Maduro’s presidency illegitimate, embraced Mr. Guaidó as the country’s rightful leader and began ratcheting up sanctions against Venezuela, the oil-rich nation has suffered an economic collapse and is no closer to finding a peaceful resolution to the standoff between its two competing heads of state.

The Lima meeting followed an order by Mr. Trump to freeze all Venezuelan state assets in the United States and to punish any American or foreign firms doing business with Mr. Maduro’s government without special permission. It was the toughest set of international sanctions imposed by the United States in the Western Hemisphere in 30 years.

ImageCreditMartin Mejia/Associated Press

But the Trump administration stopped short of declaring that it had imposed a total embargo against Venezuela, and several sanctions experts on Tuesday said the new economic penalties were not as broad as those imposed against North Korea, for example.

By threatening to go after Mr. Maduro’s remaining business partners — a thinly veiled warning to Russian, Indian and Chinese companies that buy Venezuelan crude oil — the Trump administration is playing the last big card in its sanctions hand.

Mr. Trinkunas said the United States will be left with few diplomatic options if it fails to topple Mr. Maduro. “They used all the power they had at once, as opposed to using a more gradual approach to force a political solution,” he said. “It was a shock-and-awe approach — and the Venezuelans weren’t shocked or awed.”

The Venezuelan government has called the new sanctions “the most shamefaced looting seen in the contemporary history of international relations.” In reality, Mr. Maduro had little access to Venezuelan state assets in the United States since Washington’s decision to recognize Mr. Guaidó in January and ban oil trade with the country.

The oil sanctions pushed Venezuela’s already unraveling economy into a tailspin, but Mr. Maduro has been able to keep some revenue flowing by readjusting the country’s foreign trade to Asia, Russia and Turkey. In April, he quashed Mr. Guaidó’s attempt to provoke a military uprising and doubled down on repression and state surveillance to tighten his grip on power.

Analysts said the new sanctions will allow Mr. Maduro to blame the economic crisis, which began when he took office in 2013, on the trade barriers imposed by the United States. It is a propaganda message long employed by his government’s closest ally, Cuba.

Neil Bhatiya, a sanctions expert at the Center for New American Security in Washington, said it is not clear from the text of Mr. Trump’s order how aggressively the new sanctions will pursue global companies that do business with Venezuela’s government, or firms linked to it.

He suggested the action could amount to a scare tactic — with widespread economic and strategic implications — that could backfire on the United States, as it could push Venezuela closer to United States’ rivals like Russian and China and could isolate American companies in the country for years, he said.

“That would be obviously the opposite of the intent of the administration in pursuing this goal,” Mr. Bhatiya said. “They want to see Maduro leave, but I think it is in the realm of the plausible that he is able to stay for an indefinite period of time, because he is being bailed out by countries we can’t touch.”

In Lima, Mr. Bolton mentioned Cuba nine times in 12 minutes, saying that extreme economic pressure will “work in Venezuela and it will work in Cuba.” The United States has banned most trade with Cuba since 1962, without toppling its government.

But the message seemed aimed at American voters, particularly in Florida, said Geoff Ramsey, head of the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America. Florida has a large Cuban-American population and is crucial to Mr. Trump’s re-election prospects.

“Talk of economic embargoes may play well among the Cuban community in Florida, but people in Venezuela will be asking themselves if they will have to live through this for the next 60 years,” said Mr. Ramsey.

He added: “This is a policy built on Cold War rhetoric.”


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