U.S. announces new sanctions against Maduro officials, aid shipment en route
Maduro hopes for Trump meeting, while Pompeo says Venezuelans reject embattled leader's 'model of governance'
The Trump administration is sending another large shipment of humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan border in Colombia, this time using U.S. military aircraft to pressure President Nicolas Maduro to give up power, according to a leaked U.S. State Department email to Congress.
The 226 tonnes of emergency supplies will begin arriving Saturday to the border city of Cucuta, where tonnes of boxes of emergency supplies stamped with the U.S. flag are already warehoused, waiting for delivery into Venezuela.
The email sent Friday was provided to The Associated Press by a congressional aide who isn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
While the U.S. military has long supported civilian-led humanitarian assistance missions around the world, this is the first time they are being used to deploy aid for Venezuela.
Sanctions for oil and gas chief
Also on Friday, the Trump administration announced sanctions targeting Venezuela's oil chief, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin saying the head of the state-owned oil and natural gas company PDVSA has been instrumental in propping up what he called Maduro's illegitimate regime.
The announcement follows recent sanctions targeting PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A.) amid a sweeping move to try to force Maduro from office and support opposition leader Juan Guaido.
The new sanctions also target four high-ranking officials of Venezuela's national intelligence service and a special police force. Mnuchin said they're responsible for corruption and repressing Venezuela's democracy.
Maduro frequently blames the White House for mounting a coup against him to colonize Venezuela and steal its vast oil resources.
Venezuela is plunging deeper into political chaos, triggered by the U.S. demand that Maduro step down a month into a second presidential term that the U.S. and its allies in Latin America consider illegitimate. His opponent, 35-year-old Guaido, burst onto the political stage in January in the first viable challenge in years to Maduro's hold on power.
As head of Congress, Guaido declared himself interim president on Jan. 23, saying he had a constitutional right to assume presidential powers from the "tyrant" Maduro. He has since garnered broad support, calling massive street protests and winning recognition from the U.S., Canada and dozens of nations in Latin America and Europe who share his goal of removing Maduro.
The escalating crisis is taking place against a backdrop of economic and social turmoil that has led to severe shortages of food and medicine that have forced millions to flee the once-prosperous OPEC nation.
Meanwhile, in an Associated Press interview on Thursday, Maduro revealed that his government held secret talks with the Trump administration. He also predicted he would survive an unprecedented global campaign to force his resignation.
While harshly criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump's confrontational stance toward his socialist government, Maduro said he hopes to meet the U.S. president soon to resolve his country's political crisis. The U.S., for its part, said it recognizes Maduro's political opponent Juan Guaido as the rightful leader.
Maduro said that during two hushed meetings in New York, his foreign minister invited the Washington-based special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, to visit "privately, publicly or secretly."
"If he wants to meet, just tell me when, where and how, and I'll be there," Maduro said without providing more details. He said both New York meetings lasted several hours.
Maduro urged to talk of 'exit plans'
A senior administration official in Washington who was not authorized to speak publicly said U.S. officials were willing to meet with "former Venezuela officials, including Maduro himself, to discuss their exit plans."
Two senior Venezuelan officials who were not authorized to discuss the meetings publicly said the two encounters between Abrams and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza came at the request of the U.S.
They described the first round of meetings, on Jan. 26, as hostile, with the U.S. envoy threatening Venezuela with the deployment of troops and chastising the Venezuelan government for allegedly being in league with Cuba, Russia and Hezbollah.
When they met again this week, the atmosphere was less tense, even though the Feb. 11 encounter came four days after Abrams said the "time for dialogue with Maduro had long passed." During that meeting, Abrams insisted severe U.S. sanctions would oust Maduro even if Venezuela's military stuck by him.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday said he sees obvious signs that Maduro is starting to understand Venezuelans reject him as their leader.
Speaking to reporters in Reykjavik, Iceland, Pompeo said Maduro's request for such a high-level meeting isn't new, but it reflects that he's realizing his crisis-riddled nation rejects his "model of governance."
Pompeo wouldn't say whether he would send Abrams to meet Maduro in Caracas.
Abrams's appointment as special envoy last month signalled the Trump administration's determination to take a tougher line on Venezuela.
The hawkish former Republican diplomat was a major voice pushing for the ouster of Manuel Noriega in Panama in the 1980s and also was convicted for withholding information from the U.S. Congress during the infamous Iran-Contra affair. He also played a leading role in managing the U.S.'s tepid response to a coup attempt that briefly toppled Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002.
At turns conciliatory and combative in his interview, Maduro said all Venezuela needs to rebound is for Trump to remove his "infected hand" from the country that sits atop the world's largest petroleum reserves.
Maduro blames U.S. for shortages
Maduro said U.S. sanctions on the oil industry are to blame for mounting hardships in his country, even though shortages and hyperinflation that economists say topped one million per cent long predate Trump's recent action.
"The infected hand of Donald Trump is hurting Venezuela," Maduro said.
The sanctions already in place effectively ban all oil purchases by the U.S., which had been Venezuela's biggest oil buyer until now. Maduro said he will make up for the sudden drop in revenue by targeting markets in Asia, especially India, where the head of state-run oil giant PDVSA was this week negotiating new oil sales.
"We've been building a path to Asia for many years," he said. "It's a successful route, every year they are buying larger volumes and amounts of oil."
India may get around sanctions
At a petroleum conference in New Delhi, Venezuela's oil minister, Manuel Quevedo, suggested the country was open to a barter system with India to get around U.S. sanctions.
"We do not have any barter system with Venezuela. Commercial considerations and related factors will determine the value of trade," India's Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Raveesh Kumar, said in response to the Venezuelan official's comments.
Maduro also cited the continued support of China and especially Russia, which has been a major supplier of loans, weapons and oil investment over the years. He said the antagonistic views taken by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin run the risk of converting the current crisis into a high-risk geopolitical fight between the U.S. and Russia that recalls some of the most-dangerous brinkmanship of the Cold War.
Amid the mounting pressure at home and abroad, Maduro said he won't give up power as a way to defuse the standoff.
He also reiterated a refusal to allow humanitarian aid, calling boxes of U.S.-donated food and pediatric supplies sitting in a warehouse on the border in Colombia mere "crumbs" after the U.S. administration froze billions of dollars in the nation's oil revenue and overseas assets.
"They hang us, steal our money and then say, 'Here, grab these crumbs' and make a global show out of it," said Maduro.
Richard Branson plans concert
His comments came hours after British billionaire Richard Branson announced in a video that he will host a concert in the Cucuta in hopes of raising $100 million to buy humanitarian supplies for Venezuelans.
"With dignity we say 'no to the global show,"' said Maduro. "Whoever wants to help Venezuela is welcome, but we have enough capacity to pay for everything that we need."
Opponents say the 56-year-old former bus driver has lost touch with his working-class roots, accusing him of ordering mass arrests and starving Venezuelans while he and regime insiders — including the top military brass — line their pockets through corruption.
But Maduro shrugged off the label of "dictator," attributing it to an ideologically driven media campaign by the West to undermine the socialist revolution started by Chavez.
He said he won't resign, seeing his place in history alongside other Latin American leftists from Salvador Allende in Chile to Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala who in decades past had been the target of U.S.-backed coups.
"I'm not afraid," he said. Even last year's attack on him with explosives-laden drones during a military ceremony didn't shake his resolve, he said.
"I'm only worried about the destiny of the fatherland and of our people, our boys and girls ... this is what gives me energy."
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