U.S. readies sanctions, charges over Venezuela food program: sources

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during his visit to a packing center of the CLAP (Local Committees of Supply and Production) program, a Venezuelan government handout of basic food supplies, in Caracas, Venezuela April 17, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is preparing sanctions and criminal charges against Venezuelan officials and others suspected of using a military-run food aid program to launder money for President Nicolas Maduro’s government, according to people familiar with the matter.

These actions are expected to be taken within the next three months as part of the Trump administration’s push to curtail the cash flow to Maduro and his loyalists, two sources said on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that the United States was putting together a package of measures alleging the large-scale laundering of funds intended for the food program and other state operations in Venezuela, where millions of people are suffering from food and medicine shortages.

Multiple U.S. government agencies, including the National Security Council and the Treasury, State and Justice Departments, are involved in the effort, the sources said. The agencies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Venezuela’s political crisis has deepened since opposition leader Juan Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that socialist Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

The United States and many European and Latin American countries have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader. But Maduro retains control of state functions and the support of the military’s top brass, as well the support of allies such as Russia, Cuba and China.

Sanctions and fraud indictments are under consideration against Venezuelan military officials and politicians as well as Venezuelan business people and foreign partners, the sources said. The names of those who might be targeted was not immediately known.

Many Venezuelan families rely on the subsidized food program, known by its Spanish initials CLAP, for their basic necessities in the oil-producing South American nation, where hyperinflation has raged for years.

The food aid program would be a new target in Washington’s pressure campaign against Maduro. Since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration has imposed sanctions on dozens of Venezuelan officials as well as companies and other entities.

Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; editing by Jonathan Oatis