The Trump administration on Monday banned all use by Americans of Venezuelan cryptocurrency, saying that its introduction is intended to skirt U.S. sanctions. In a separate move, the administration also slapped sanctions on four current and former senior Venezuelan officials accused of corruption and mismanagement.
Venezuelan officials condemned the ban, its president suggesting charges of a "crime against humanity" could be pursued against the U.S.
In an executive order that took effect immediately upon its issuance, President Donald Trump declared illegal all U.S. transactions related to Venezuelan digital currencies, coins or tokens. The prohibition applies to all people and companies subject to U.S. jurisdiction. The move follows the introduction last month of a Venezuelan cryptocurrency known as the "petro," for which the government says it has received investment commitments of $5 billion.
In the executive order, Trump said it was an "attempt to circumvent U.S. sanctions" imposed for democratic backsliding.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro issued a statement saying the unilateral sanctions violate the U.N. Charter "and the most elemental principles of international law." He said charges of a "crime against humanity" could be presented to the World Court.
Diosdado Cabello, the powerful vice president of the ruling socialist party, accused "Emperor Trump" of trying to extend the financial "blockade" of Venezuela.
"It's not going to be easy to execute," Cabello said in a press conference in Caracas. "But that's what the imperialists do, they try to instill fear and scare the free people of the world."
The Treasury had said in January that the petro appeared to be an extension of credit to Venezuela and warned that transactions in it may violate U.S. sanctions.
In February, cash-strapped Venezuela became the first country to launch its own version of bitcoin, the petro, in a move that Maduro celebrated as putting his country on the world's technological forefront.
The petro is backed by Venezuela's crude oil reserves, the largest in the world, yet it has arrived on the market as the socialist country sinks deeper into an economic crisis marked by soaring inflation and food shortages that put residents in lines for hours to buy common products.
Maduro had announced late last year that he was creating the digital currency to outmaneuver U.S. sanctions preventing Venezuela from issuing new debt.
Bitcoin and other digital tokens are already widely used in Venezuela as a hedge against hyperinflation and an easy-to-use mechanism for paying for everything from doctor visits to honeymoons in a country where obtaining hard currency requires transactions in the illegal black market.
The government has promised that Venezuelans will be able to use the $60 coins to pay taxes and for public services. But with the Venezuelan minimum wage hovering around $3 a month, it's unlikely citizens will buy in large amounts.
In its own statement on Monday, Treasury said it was hitting the four current and former Venezuelan officials with sanctions that freeze any assets they may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them.
The four include Americo Alex Mata, a director of Venezuela's National Bank of Housing and Habitat and coordinator of Maduro's 2013 campaign, Willian Antonio Contreras, the head of the body that oversees price controls in the country, Nelson Reinaldo Lepaje, the head of the Office of the National Treasury, and Carlos Alberto Rotondaro, the former president of the Board of Directors of the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security.