Politics

Trump administration increases pressure on Maduro regime with new sanctions

Key Points
  • The Department of Treasury identified 15 aircraft operated by Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, that transport senior members of the Maduro regime.
  • Several of these aircraft were also operated in an unsafe and unprofessional manner in proximity to U.S. military aircraft, while in international air space, Treasury said.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro
Marco Bello | Reuters

WASHINGTON — In the latest move meant to back Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, the Trump administration on Tuesday sanctioned more than a dozen aircraft used to support the regime of President Nicolas Maduro.

The Department of Treasury identified 15 aircraft operated by Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, that transport senior members of the Maduro regime.

According to the Treasury release, Venezuelan Oil Minister Manuel Salvador Quevedo Fernandez flew to an OPEC meeting last year in the United Arab Emirates on a PDVSA aircraft. Other regime officials used the company's aircraft throughout 2019 as well as in 2018.

What's more, several of these aircraft were operated in an unsafe and unprofessional manner in proximity to U.S. military aircraft, while in international air space, Treasury said.

"In the winter of 2019, PDVSA Learjet 45 flew in close proximity to a U.S. military aircraft over the Caribbean Sea. In the spring of 2019, during a joint operation conducted by PDVSA and the Venezuelan Integrated Air Command, PDVSA's Learjet 45XR attempted to interfere with a U.S. military aircraft in the northern Caribbean Sea," according to the Treasury release.

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The U.S. move is the latest taken under Executive Order 13884, signed by President Donald Trump in August, authorizing a block on property and interests of the Venezuelan government.

Under the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, U.S. citizens are prohibited from using assets that have been blocked or sanctioned.

"This action furthers U.S. efforts to use targeted sanctions and steady diplomacy to end Maduro's attempts to usurp power, and to support a Venezuelan transition to democracy, including free and fair presidential elections," wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement.

The new development adds to what has become a nearly two-decade saga of crumbling relations between Washington and Caracas.

Tensions between Venezuela and the U.S. can be traced back to when Hugo Chavez, Maduro's predecessor, became president of Venezuela in 1999. During his campaign for president, Chavez vilified the U.S. and other countries he felt were taking advantage of Venezuela.

Chavez also accused the U.S. of aiding in an attempted coup against his government in 2002. While the Bush administration tried to distance itself from the coup attempt, documents found in 2004 showed the CIA knew of an attempted coup back then.

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The U.S. condemned Venezuela for imprisoning political opponents as well as the Chavez regime's consolidation of power. Chavez seized control of the country's supreme court in 2004. He also increased his control over the local media, passing laws that penalized outlets for running content that "offends" public officials.

Once Chavez died in 2013 and Maduro took over, tensions began to increase once again. Maduro, who is not the charismatic leader Chavez was, consolidated his power in 2017 by stripping the country's opposition-led legislature of power. By then, a massive humanitarian and economic crisis had already begun.

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Venezuela's economy was decimated after oil prices began collapsing in late 2014. The fall in oil prices made it hard for Venezuela to keep providing subsidies for its many national programs. It has also led to massive shortages of food and other basic goods such as medicine.

This crisis has led the Trump administration to slap sanctions on dozens of Venezuelans associated with the Maduro regime, including his wife, Cilia Flores.

Through all of this, Venezuela has found a natural ally in Russia.

Moscow is not only a major political friend of Caracas but also a financier of the South American nation's oil fields. Russia's largest oil company, Rosneft, operates in Venezuela and has issued loans to PDVSA.

In another show of support, Moscow has given Caracas a line of credit to purchase Russian arms. From Kalashnikov rifles to Sukhoi planes, the Kremlin has brokered several weapons deals with Venezuela and deployed two Russian bombers to the country.

— Fred Imbert contributed to this report from CNBC's global headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.