U.S. Sanctions Venezuela's Supreme Court

U.S. officials said the sanctions are punishment for the court's takeover of Venezuela’s democratically-elected congress.

Venezuela's Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno was among those sanctioned by the U.S. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters)

The Trump administration has sanctioned eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, including the court’s president, Maikel Moreno, the U.S. Treasury Department announced late Thursday night. U.S. officials said the sanctions were a direct response to an incident in March in which the Supreme Court annulled the nation’s democratically elected National Assembly, which is controlled by Venezuela’s opposition party. At the time, the Supreme Court, which remains loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, justified the takeover by claiming that the National Assembly was in contempt of its rulings. The court ultimately sought to authorize Maduro’s oil joint ventures by bypassing congressional approval.

In the wake of what many opposition leaders considered to be a coup d’etat, protestors took to the streets of Venezuela, chanting and waving signs that read “No to Dictatorship.” For the last two months, continued protests in Venezuela have often turned violent, resulting in an estimated 45 deaths. Although Venezuela’s Supreme Court later revoked their takeover in response to international backlash, Thursday’s sanctions aim to pressure Maduro’s government to discontinue its authoritarian behavior. A statement from U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explains the administration’s decision:

The Venezuelan people are suffering from a collapsing economy brought about by their government’s mismanagement and corruption. Members of the country’s Supreme Court of Justice have exacerbated the situation by consistently interfering with the legislative branch’s authority. By imposing these targeted sanctions, the United States is supporting the Venezuelan people in their efforts to protect and advance democratic governance in their country.

Since assuming the presidency in 2013, Maduro has been criticized by international leaders for carrying out a dictatorial regime. In addition to usurping the power of the National Assembly, the president has been accused of jailing opposition leaders and limiting access to newspapers that speak critically of his government. Many Venezuelans also hold Maduro responsible for the dire state of the nation’s economic and humanitarian crisis.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, all eight of the sanctioned Supreme Court judges were instrumental not only in annulling the National Assembly in March, but also in limiting the assembly’s authority over the past year. In addition to freezing the judges’ U.S. assets and preventing them from traveling to the United States, the new sanctions will forbid American citizens from conducting business with them. Before Thursday, the latest Venezuelan official to be sanctioned by the U.S. was the vice president, Tareck El Aissami, who was blacklisted in February for his involvement in drug trafficking.

On Thursday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez condemned the U.S. sanctions via Twitter, stating: “It’s outrageous and unacceptable for the United States to impose sanctions on a sovereign and independent nation in violation of Venezuelan and international laws.” As of this writing, Maduro has yet to issue a statement of his own.

At a Thursday meeting at the White House, President Trump discussed the Venezuelan crisis with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. While Trump made no mention of the sanctions, he did express concern over the status of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. “When you look at the oil reserves that they have, when you look at the potential wealth that Venezuela has, you sort of have to wonder, why is that happening? How is that possible?” Trump asked. Then, in an answer to his question, he added, “It’s been unbelievably poorly run for a long period of time.”