(Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan leader Juan Guaido’s representatives assumed all the trappings of an official government in Washington this week, meeting with lawmakers, seeking control of their country’s assets and speaking against the backdrop of their nation’s flag.
Their effort was met with the full embrace of the Trump administration, which endorsed Guaido on Jan. 23, minutes after he declared himself the country’s interim president. In the week since then, the U.S. has taken an array of diplomatic and economic steps to shore up the 35-year-old engineer turned politician.
Together, the moves amounted to the biggest challenge yet to what the U.S. now calls the “defunct” government of socialist President Nicolas Maduro. Yet it’s very much unfinished business, as Maduro vows he won’t quit and Venezuela’s military command stands by him as the leader of a nation in economic collapse.
“Pressure on the Maduro regime is working, and we have to maintain it, increase it,” said Carlos Vecchio, a Guaido ally who introduces himself as Venezuela’s ambassador in the U.S. “The moment is now.”
American officials wave off questions about military intervention and memories of past involvement in Latin American affairs, just as they say it’s too late for the Vatican or Latin American leaders to serve as mediators seeking some deal with Maduro.
Instead, they insist there are many more economic and diplomatic options in their toolbox.
“Our objective is a peaceful transfer of power,” National Security Adviser John Bolton said in a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt on Friday.“And that’s why we’ve been imposing economic sanctions, increasing political pressure from around the world, including from the European Parliament yesterday, for example, hopefully from the countries themselves.”
Already, the U.S. has certified that Guaido can control key bank accounts in the U.S.; imposed sanctions on state-owned oil company PDVSA, effectively blocking Maduro from exporting crude to the U.S.; and persuaded the Bank of England to deny Maduro access to $1.2 billion in gold that the government holds in London.
Assuming control of state assets is a “complex situation,” Vecchio said this week. He added that he planned to meet with White House and Treasury Department officials to start the legal process to recover both financial assets including bank accounts and physical assets such as the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington.
Citgo Petroleum Corp., the U.S. refiner controlled by PDVSA, is one of the most important assets of the Venezuelan people, according to an administration official who briefed reporters Thursday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss administration options, said the U.S. is trying to ensure Citgo remains viable while preventing Maduro and his cronies from access to its assets and revenue.
Bolton said in the interview Friday that the U.S. believes that the nation’s oil infrastructure, which he said has been damaged during the Maduro regime, can be fixed “fairly quickly.” The U.S. is also looking to provide the nation with humanitarian aid, including an initial $20 million that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo offered last week.
The U.S. is also leaning on European allies to take further steps to back Guaido. The European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution in Brussels recognizing him as interim president “until new free, transparent and credible presidential elections can be called in order to restore democracy.”
Vice President Mike Pence has been the most public face of the U.S. campaign, meeting with Vecchio and other Venezuelan officials and exiles and speaking with Guaido by phone several times. Pence addressed the Venezuelan people in a coordinated video posted on social media the day before Guaido’s announcement that he was assuming control. On Friday, he’s scheduled to meet with Venezuelan exiles in Miami, a political stronghold of opposition to Maduro.
Trump called Guaido on Wednesday, according to the White House.
Senator James Risch, an Idaho Republican, said Congress is likely to extend humanitarian assistance beyond the $20 million offered by Pompeo, though he declined to give a dollar amount. “The American people have always been very, very generous whenever there’s a humanitarian crisis the American people have stepped up,” Risch said in an interview.
Risch said he and Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, will offer a resolution affirming the Senate’s support for Guaido and calling for him to hold elections as soon as possible. The House is working on a companion resolution, expected to be introduced next week.
Bolton and Mauricio Claver-Carone, the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, have operated largely behind the scenes, in close coordination with Pence and his staff.
Bolton and his team lead a daily interagency call on Venezuela with representatives from the State Department, Pentagon, Treasury, the U.S. Agency for International Development and intelligence officials. Bolton also has been meeting with representatives of entities with a stake in Venezuela’s future, including Citgo executives.
Bolton had an attention-getting cameo when he appeared at a White House press briefing this week holding a yellow legal pad that said “5,000 troops to Colombia.” It was widely read as an effort to unnerve Maduro rather than a plan for intervention.
But Bolton also said in a tweet this week that “there will be serious consequences for those who attempt to subvert democracy and harm Guaido.”
Risch, who was among lawmakers who met with Vecchio on Wednesday, said he was impressed with the country’s interim leaders and he’d been told there was support for them in the military’s lower ranks.
“Apparently there’s only a handful at the top that are a real problem,” Risch said of the military’s loyalty to Maduro. “We’re seeing some cracks there. Once that goes, the thing does come down.”
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said the U.S. is considering sanctions on the personal assets of military officials who don’t abandon Maduro.
But threats remain. Guaido said Thursday that members of a police unit accused of extrajudicial killings came to his home in Caracas. The police commander denied that the unit’s officers had gone to the building.
Vecchio said that if Guaido were imprisoned, it would only “accelerate the transition” because the Venezuelan people would rise up in his defense.
(Updates with Bolton interview starting in seventh paragraph.)
--With assistance from Daniel Flatley and Jonathan Stearns.
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