WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Trump administration is imposing sanctions on 13 senior officials of Venezuela's government, military and state oil company PDVSA on Wednesday (July 26), US officials said, seeking to ratchet up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro to scrap plans for a controversial new congress.
The United States decided to target individuals for alleged human rights abuses, undermining democracy and corruption, while sparing the country for now from broader financial or "sectoral"sanctions against its vital oil industry - though such actions, the officials told Reuters, are still under consideration.
The move is aimed at showing Maduro's socialist government that US President Donald Trump is prepared to make good on his threat of "strong and swift economic actions" if it goes ahead with plans for a vote on Sunday to establish an assembly that critics say will cement Maduro as dictator, the officials said.
The US Treasury Department planned to issue a sanctions announcement later on Wednesday, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The names of those being sanctioned were not immediately provided for publication.
One of the US officials warned that the move was just an initial round of sanctions and the administration was readying tougher additional measures that could be rolled out as part of a "steady drumbeat" of responses to the Venezuelan crisis.
The most serious of the potential future steps would be financial sanctions that would halt dollar payments for the country's oil, starving the government of hard currency, or a total ban on oil imports to the United States, Venezuela's biggest customer.
But the decision to hold back on hitting Venezuela's oil sector reflected a continuing internal debate that has weighed the risks of inflicting further suffering on the Venezuelan people, raising US domestic gasoline prices and causing problems for PDVSA's US refining subsidiary Citgo.
Even some of Maduro's domestic critics have cautioned that the Venezuelan leader could rally his supporters under a nationalist banner if the United States goes too far on sanctions.
Like the Trump administration, Venezuela's majority-backed opposition is demanding that Maduro scrap Sunday's election, which would create a congress with powers to rewrite the country's constitution and override all other institutions.
But Maduro insists it is the only way to empower the people and bring peace after four months of anti-government unrest in which more than 100 people have been killed.
The US officials said the "designated" individuals were accused of supporting Maduro's crackdown, harming democratic institutions or victimizing the Venezuelan people through corruption, and that additional "bad actors" could be sanctioned later.
Sanctions were imposed on the chief judge and seven other members of Venezuela's pro-Maduro Supreme Court in May in response to their decision to annul the opposition-led Congress earlier this year. That followed similar sanctions against the country's vice president.
Such measures call for freezing US assets, banning travel to the United States and prohibiting Americans from doing business with them.
But individual sanctions have much more limited impact than some of other weapons in the US sanctions arsenal.
Sanctions prohibiting any transaction in US currency by PDVSA, for instance, are among the toughest of various oil-related measures under discussion at the White House, a senior White House official and an adviser with direct knowledge of the discussions told Reuters last week.