The Trump administration froze all Venezuelan government assets Monday in a dramatic escalation of tensions with Nicolás Maduro that places his socialist administration alongside a short list of adversaries from Cuba, North Korea, Syria, and Iran that have been targeted by aggressive US actions. The ban blocking American companies and individuals from doing business with Maduro's government and its top supporters, which takes effect immediately, is the first of its kind in the western hemisphere in over three decades, following an asset freeze against Gen. Manuel Noriega's government in Panama and a trade embargo on the Sandinista leadership in Nicaragua in the 1980s. While the order falls short of an outright trade embargo—notably, it spares Venezuela's still sizable private sector—it represents the most sweeping US action to remove Maduro since the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's rightful leader in January, the AP reports.
Critically, it also exposes foreign entities doing business with the Maduro government to US retaliation. "The apparent goal is to give the US the ability to apply the law beyond its borders to allies of Maduro like China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, and Turkey," said Russ Dallen, the Miami-based head of Caracas Capital Markets brokerage. "Should those foreign entities continue doing business with Maduro they can have their US assets seized." The executive order signed by President Trump justified the move by citing Maduro's "continued usurpation of power" and human rights abuses by security forces loyal to him. The Maduro government has yet to respond. But Guaidó celebrated the US action, saying it would protect Houston-based oil company CITGO—Venezuela's most valuable overseas asset—from attempts by Maduro to mortgage its assets. (Read more Venezuela stories.)