U.S. sanctions five top Venezuela officials close to Maduro

By Camilo Montoya-Galvez

/ CBS News

Maduro blocks humanitarian aid

Washington — The Trump administration issued economic sanctions Friday against five top Venezuelan military and intelligence officials who are helping the country's embattled leftist leader cling to power.

The sanctions target two high-ranking officials in Venezuela's intelligence agency, which has been accused of stifling dissent against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the agency's leader, Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, and its first commissioner, Hildemaro Jose Rodriguez Mucura.

Sanctions were also imposed on Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala, the commander Venezuela's Directorate General of Military Counter-Intelligence; Rafael Enrique Bastardo Mendoza, the head of a controversial elite police unit known as FAES; and Manuel Salvador Quevedo Fernandez, the president of Venezuela's state-owned oil company.

"Treasury continues to target officials who have helped the illegitimate Maduro regime repress the Venezuelan people," U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement Friday. "We are sanctioning officials in charge of Maduro's security and intelligence apparatus, which has systematically violated human rights and suppressed democracy, including through torture and other brutal use of force."

With the new round sanctions, the White House reinforces its tough stance against Maduro's government. It recently recognized Juan Guaidó, the country's the main opposition leader, as Venezuela's interim president, and issued sweeping sanctions against Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. The Trump administration also pledged more than $20 million in humanitarian assistance for the Venezuelan people.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a meeting with soldiers at a military base in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 30, 2019. HANDOUT

Even before Guiadó declared himself president, the U.S. government had imposed economic sanctions on Maduro's government and companies with ties to the leader, who has consolidated power by stacking the judiciary with his allies, overhauling the legislative branch and maintaining a tight grip on the military. Mr. Trump also included Venezuelan government officials in the third version of his travel ban, which the Supreme Court upheld last summer.

Despite those actions, the Trump administration has reportedly continued meeting with Maduro government officials. The Associated Press reported on Thursday that U.S. special representative to Venezuela Elliott Abrams met with President Maduro's foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, in the U.S. on two occasions, as recently as February 11. Maduro told the AP his foreign minister invited Abrams to Venezuela to discuss the country's socio-political crisis.

A State Department spokesperson reiterated that the U.S. government no longer recognizes Maduro's government but did not deny that meetings between U.S. and Venezuelan officials were held.

"The United States does not recognize the former Maduro regime as the Government of Venezuela and our position has not changed, but it should come as no surprise that State Department officials exchange opinions with a wide variety of foreign interlocutors, especially while we continue to take all steps to ensure the safety and security of our Embassy personnel on the ground in Caracas," the spokesperson told CBS News, adding that the State Department will not disclose the "contents" of private discussions.

Christina Ruffini and Pamela Falk contributed to this report.

First published on February 15, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a meeting with soldiers at a military base in Caracas

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