September 25, 2018 / 2:05 PM / a month ago

U.S. sanctions Venezuela officials, Trump slams Maduro

NEW YORK/CARACAS (Reuters) - The United States imposed new sanctions on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s wife and several of his top allies on Tuesday as U.S. President Donald Trump urged members of the United Nations to support a “restoration of democracy” in the once-booming OPEC nation.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores gesture during arrival for a special session of the National Constituent Assembly to take oath as re-elected President at the Palacio Federal Legislativo in Caracas, Venezuela May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo

The measure sanctioned six officials in Maduro’s “inner circle,” including Vice President Delcy Rodriguez and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, and “blocked” a $20 million private jet identified as belonging to a front-man of a top official.

The move adds pressure to a government already widely criticized for economic collapse and undermining democracy. But it does not materially change Washington’s efforts to pressure Socialist Party stalwarts who have shown no willingness to hand over power or negotiate a transition.

“Today, socialism has bankrupted the oil-rich nation and driven its people into abject poverty,” Trump said in remarks to the United Nations General Assembly.

“We ask the nations gathered here to join us in calling for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela,” he said.

Separately, a group of Latin American nations will present a complaint in New York on Wednesday against the Maduro administration for alleged human rights abuses to be investigated by the International Criminal Court, officials said.

Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina will be joined by Canada in submitting the initiative against Venezuela’s government, according to two officials familiar with the plans.

Under Maduro, Venezuela has limited the powers of the opposition-run legislature, jailed opposition politicians and created a parallel congress with unlimited powers.

Inflation is running at 200,000 percent and basic foods and medicines, like rice and antibiotics, are increasingly difficult to obtain. That has fueled an exodus of Venezuelans to nearby Latin American countries, where borders are now overwhelmed by Venezuelan migrants.

Maduro says he is the victim of an “economic war” led by U.S.-backed adversaries. He denies limiting political freedoms, insisting opposition leaders have plotted assassination attempts and sought to overthrow him through violent street protests.

On Tuesday, he said Trump’s comments were an apology for America’s history of colonialism in the region and offered words of support for the sanctioned officials who joined him during an event broadcast over state television.

“I’m surrounded by sanctioned (officials),” he said. “Thank you, Donald Trump, for surrounding me with dignity.”

He nonetheless said he hoped to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Trump. The White House responded to a similar request last year by saying such a meeting would happen when the country returned to democracy.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's Vice President Delcy Rodriguez talks to the media during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo

MADURO HANGS ON

The Trump administration has levied several rounds of sanctions against Maduro’s government since 2017.

Sanctions such as those published on Tuesday bar American citizens and companies from any dealings with the individuals in question, which blocks them from holding bank accounts or contracting services from U.S. firms.

“More personal sanctions can maybe deprive top Venezuelan officials from some ill-gotten gains but this will hardly destabilize the regime,” said Raul Gallegos, associate director of consultancy Control Risks.

A broader set of financial sanctions created last year bar American investors from acquiring newly issued debt, effectively locking the country out of credit markets and further fuelling its cash-flow problems.

A group of U.S. senators said on Tuesday they had introduced legislation seeking to address the crisis in Venezuela by, among other things, tightening sanctions and providing $40 million in humanitarian aid.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence separately said on Tuesday the United States would provide an additional $48 million to “partners in the region” to confront the “humanitarian crisis” caused by the growing migration of Venezuelans.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez takes part in a ceremony to kick off the distribution of security forcers and voting materials to be used in the upcoming presidential elections, at Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela May 15, 2018. Pictures taken on May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo

The U.N. migration and refugees organizations said in a joint statement in August that 2.3 million Venezuelans are currently living abroad and more than 1.6 million have left since 2015. Venezuela does not release migration figures.

But Maduro said in September no more than 600,000 Venezuelans had migrated in the past two years, and that 90 percent of them want to return.

Maduro has hung on to power in part because of continued support of members of the armed forces such as Padrino, 55, who was appointed defense minister in 2014.

The Treasury said Padrino helped ensure the military’s loyalty to Maduro. In the past, it has accused high-ranking officers of corruption and undermining human rights.

First lady Cilia Flores, a lawyer and former attorney general who also ran Venezuela’s legislature, frequently appears at public events with Maduro and is seen an important behind-the-scenes power broker.

Treasury also said a Gulfstream 200 private jet located in Florida had been identified as belonging to a front man of Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello, who the United States accuses of being involved in drug trafficking.

Reuters was unable to immediately obtain comment from Cabello, who denies the accusations.

Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Dave Graham in New York and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by Alistair Bell and Diane Craft

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