From left, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, and President Donald Trump sit together during a meeting with Caribbean leaders at Mar-A Lago, Friday, March 22, 2019, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
The Trump administration stepped up sanctions on Venezuela Friday in response to the kidnapping of a top aide for an leader the U.S wants to see replace the embattled — but not yet ousted — President Nicolas Maduro.
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The Treasury Department announcement came while the President Donald Trump met with leaders from five nations in the Caribbean that generally support the U.S. call for an end to Maduro's rule. Trump hosted them at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida and pledged U.S. investment in their countries.
The new sanctions, issued in response to the kidnapping, specifically target Venezuela's national development bank, BANDES, and four additional subsidiaries that BANDES owns or controls.
"The regime's continued use of kidnapping, torture and murder of Venezuelan citizens will not be tolerated by the U.S. or the international coalition" that is united behind Juan Guaido, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. He was referring to the opposition leader recognized by more than 50 countries as the legitimate interim leader following a flawed ballot that resulted in Maduro's re-election.
Earlier this week, forces affiliated with the Maduro government broke into the homes of officials backing Guaido and threatened them with their lives. Guaido's chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, was kidnapped. In an op-ed published Friday in The Miami Herald, Vice President Mike Pence said the kidnapping was an "egregious violation of the rule of law" and was only the latest example of Maduro's "brutality and despotism."
"We're not bluffing when we told Maduro not to do stuff like this (the kidnapping)," John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser told Univision News in an interview aired Friday.
The U.S. has already sanctioned scores of top Venezuelan officials and has blocked U.S. banks from doing business with that country, imposing a financial strangle-hold on the cash-strapped nation. The sanctions announced Friday also came as members of Congress from both parties condemned Marrero's arrest.
"The international community is closely watching Maduro's actions and will respond accordingly to any that threaten the safety of the opposition and Interim President Juan Guaidó," said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
Trump hosted the leaders of Jamaica, Bahamas, Haiti, Dominican Republic and St. Lucia to show his support for Caribbean countries that back democratic transition in Venezuela. The five have either denounced Maduro or joined more than 50 countries in recognizing Juan Guaido as the rightful interim leader of the nation.
Trump told the leaders as the meeting kicked off that he would be "discussing ways that we can be beneficial to you and you can be beneficial to us."
Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness said that at their meeting with Trump he learned that a representative from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government agency that helps American businesses invest in emerging markets, would be visiting the region and the five countries.
"The message from this meeting is that the United States wants to encourage and promote stronger relationship with the region," Holness said. "It's absolutely important that it's not just talk, that there will be real investments."
"We're very happy with that message. We feel that that is a message that is long-in-coming, but we're also satisfied that it's not just a message. Were satisfied that there will be instrumental action."
The Trump administration considers Maduro's government a dictatorship and says he was re-elected in an illegitimate election. The U.S. has sanctioned scores of top Venezuelan officials and has blocked U.S. banks from doing business with Venezuela, putting a financial stranglehold on the cash-strapped country. The country is in an economic meltdown and millions of Venezuelans have fled.
Nations in the Caribbean, however, have been split on whether to interfere in Venezuela.
For years, Venezuela has provided a reliable supply of oil to many Caribbean nations. They purchased the oil under the PetroCaribe arrangement, which gave them low-interest credit terms, but have left them indebted to Caracas.
St. Lucia Prime Minister Allen Michael Chastanet said it's been since the Reagan administration that the U.S. has taken an interest in the Caribbean and acknowledged that Trump's invitation was likely due to their support of the U.S. stance against Venezuela at the Organization of American States.
He also acknowledged that not all countries in the region agree with the U.S. call for Maduro's ouster.
"I think we all recognize there's a problem in Venezuela. Most people recognize the need for new elections," Chastanet said, adding that any disagreement they have is in how that will play out. "The world remains divided on that. I think there is a growing consensus that there needs to be fresh elections in Venezuela to resolve the humanitarian crisis."