Venezuela’s sham elections demand new U.S. sanctions, including seizing Miami assets | Opinion

The Biden administration and Latin American democracies cannot turn a blind eye as Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro, rigs yet another election on July 28. Maduro’s ban of all major opposition candidates in order to re-elect himself fraudulently will only deepen Venezuela’s crisis and unleash a new wave of refugees across the hemisphere.

So what should be done? The U.S. playbook of oil sanctions on Venezuela has not worked as well as many had hoped. It’s time to hit the Maduro regime with personal visa and financial sanctions on the more than 1,000 Venezuelan officials and former officials who own properties in Miami and other U.S. cities, Latin America and Europe.

There are at least 718 companies just in Florida — many of them in Miami — owned by current or former officials of the Venezuelan dictatorship, according to a 2022 joint investigation by the Armando.Info investigative journalism website and El Nuevo Herald. At least 232 of these company owners are current or former military men, the report said.

The list was compiled by pairing the names and birth dates of Venezuelan officials taken from Venezuelan public records with company ownership records from Florida’s registry of corporations. Most of those named have not been subject to any U.S. individual sanctions.

Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, told me that there are “more than a thousand, probably thousands” of additional companies owned by people linked to the Venezuelan regime elsewhere in the United States and other countries.

While says he supports both economic and personal sanctions as tools to press Maduro to allow a political opening, other Venezuelan exiles believe personal sanctions are more effective than economic ones.

The Biden administration is scheduled to decide by April 18 whether to re-impose oil sanctions that it had temporarily suspended in hopes that Maduro would allow opposition leaders to run in the July vote. Maduro has banned opposition unity candidate Maria Corina Machado, and has blocked the registration of her substitute candidate, Corina Yoris.

Ewald Scharfenberg, a founder of the Armando.Info website, told me that in Venezuela’s case “personal sanctions are much more effective than economic ones.”

Venezuelan officials fear individual sanctions, such as visa restrictions, the most because many of them have properties abroad, and want to have an option to move to other countries in case the dictatorship falls. “They want to eventually move to places like France, not to Cuba or Belarus,” he said.

Oil export and other economic sanctions are less effective, because the regime can often circumvent them with the help of Turkey, Iran or other friendly countries, he said. Also, economic sanctions are often used by Maduro as a propaganda tool against Washington, he added.

“The Maduro regime has managed to create a school of thought that economic sanctions are hurting the Venezuelan people,” Scharfenberg said. “On the other hand, individual sanctions on Venezuelan officials are much more targeted, and way less open to criticism.”

Former President Obama in 2015 signed an executive order authorizing the blocking of assets and visa restrictions on Venezuelans involved in actions to undermine democracy or violate human rights. Since then, at least 110 Venezuelans have been sanctioned, including Maduro, his wife and his son.

But according to a Jan. 26 report from the bi-partisan U.S. Congressional Research Service, the Biden administration has not slapped new individual sanctions on Venezuelan officials or former officials.

Former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told me in an interview last week that U.S. sanctions will not force Maduro to allow a democratic election that he could lose. “Maduro will never give up power unless they offer him a golden parachute, a dignified exit,” Santos told me.

Maybe so. The best way to press Maduro to allow a competitive election may be a carrot-and-stick approach of escalating individual sanctions on Venezuelan officials, including seizing their Miami assets, and guarantees of a safe exit for them if the regime is voted out of power.

But it’s in everybody’s interest to step up the pressure for a political solution to Venezuela’s crisis.

About 7.7 million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years, and a new Meganalisis poll shows that 40% of Venezuelans say they would consider leaving the country if Maduro is declared the winner of the July 28 vote. That would amount to 10 million additional Venezuelan migrants to Latin American countries and the United States.

It’s time for world democracies to announce, at the very least, travel sanctions against Venezuelan officials and their families. The clock is ticking on Venezuela’s upcoming elections, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 9 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Blog: