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U.S. warns foreign companies doing business with Venezuela to tread lightly

The Trump administration is taking steps to punish anyone doing business with the Venezuelan defense sector - including foreign entities trying to quell dissent by shutting down the internet. It’s the latest effort by the administration to ratchet up pressure on the Caracas government and oust Nicolás Maduro from power.

The U.S. government has initiated the legal authority to sanction any entity, foreign or domestic, that does business with the Venezuelan defense or security services, a senior administration official told a small group of reporters Friday.

The official warned that foreign companies doing business with Venezuela should be “treading lightly on that front.”

“So if you’re a Russian company that is doing business, whether it’s on spare parts or supplying them, if you’re Spanish company supplying Venezuelan military or security services with any products, you will be subject to sanctions,” the official said.

The measures were announced Friday by the Treasury Department as part of a series of steps that also targeted two vessels which transported oil from Venezuela to Cuba.

“The U.S. will take further action if Cuba continues to receive Venezuelan oil in exchange for military support,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “As we have repeatedly said, the path to sanctions relief for those who have been sanctioned is to take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order.”

Administration officials also say they’re taking action to stop foreign entities that have worked with the Maduro government to shut down the internet when opposition leader Juan Guaidó is speaking and prevent his supporters from coordinating activities. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who is an informal advisor to President Donald Trump on Latin American issues, has accused the Chinese government of helping Maduro devise a mechanism allowing him to turn on and off the internet with a simple flip of the switch.

“I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it is for everyday people in Venezuela, especially outside of Caracas, not just to mention the opponents of Maduro to let people know what they’re working on,” Rubio said Tuesday while addressing the 49th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas. “I can tell you when the internet is going to go down in Venezuela. When Juan Guaidó is speaking. Everytime with the help of the Chinese. Irrefutable.”

The Trump administration is going on the offensive after a week of questions about its strategy supporting the efforts of Guaidó and the opposition to remove Maduro following an unsuccessful opposition uprising in Venezuela.

Guaidó, whom the United States considers the legitimate president of Venezuela, stood in front of armed military officers and called for Venezuelans to join him for the “final phase” of an effort to take physical control of the government. But Guaidó was unable to rally enough support from the Venezuelan military, and after days of violence in street protests, Maduro has held control of the military and government offices.

The administration said while the uprising did not result in a change in power, it put Maduro on the defensive. U.S. officials said Maduro was forced into hiding as Guaidó and other prominent activist leaders, such as Leopoldo Lopez, took to the streets.

The senior administration official said Maduro is acting like a cornered animal unable to trust anyone in his inner circle after several high level defections, including General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, the former chief of the Venezuelan intelligence service, who last week broke ranks with the Maduro government.

Security forces responded by detaining the vice president of the National Assembly, which the Trump administration said showed Maduro was losing control and reacting in fear.

The response shows only how “fragile” Maduro has become, the administration official said.

“Those are acts of desperation,” the official said. “It’s splashing while you drown to try to get attention and try to invoke fear.”

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.
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