WASHINGTON/ASUNCION (Reuters) – The United States on Friday announced sanctions on Venezuelan officials who blocked a humanitarian aid convoy last week, as opposition leader Juan Guaido toured South America to drum up support for an end to President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
Military officials last weekend blocked an opposition-backed effort to bring food into the country via its borders with Colombia and Brazil, leaving two aid trucks in flames and five people dead.
Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s rightful leader, visited Paraguay on Friday and was due to travel to Argentina later in the day to shore up Latin American support for a transition government for the crisis-stricken nation.
Guaido’s international backers are using a mix of sanctions and diplomacy to try to put pressure to bear on Maduro. But Maduro retains control of state institutions and the support of the armed forces, and military intervention is seen as unlikely.
“We are sanctioning members of Maduro’s security forces in response to the reprehensible violence, tragic deaths, and unconscionable torching of food and medicine destined for sick and starving Venezuelans,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
The United States “will continue to target Maduro loyalists prolonging the suffering of the victims of this man-made humanitarian crisis.”
The list includes National Guard Commander Richard Lopez and five other police and military officials based near the Colombian or Brazilian borders.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
U.S. special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said on Friday that Washington would continue “appropriate actions” against Maduro, including restricting travel visas for dozens with links to the embattled president.
“We continue to look at close associates of Maduro, who with their families have visas to the United States,” Abrams said at a news conference.
Speaking with Paraguayan President Mario Abdo, Guaido said that 600 members of Venezuela’s military had abandoned Maduro’s government following the clashes over the aid.
“In the next few hours we will announce new protest marches,” said Guaido, who is scheduled to travel to Argentina later on Friday to meet with President Mauricio Macri and to Ecuador on Saturday to meet with President Lenin Moreno.
Guaido slipped out of Venezuela last week, in violation of a Supreme Court order not to leave the country, to join the aid convoys in Colombia. There, he met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and other regional leaders and later traveled to Brazil.
He has promised to return to Venezuela by Monday, seen as a form of direct defiance to Maduro, who has said Guaido will eventually “face justice.”
Governments around the region have called on Maduro to let aid in as inflation above 2 million percent per year and chronic shortages of food have left some eating from garbage bins in order to ward off malnutrition.
Maduro has called the U.S.-backed humanitarian aid effort a veiled invasion meant to push him from power, and has insisted that there is no crisis in the country.
Russia has accused the United States of preparing to intervene militarily in Venezuela and this week, along with China, blocked a U.S. bid to get the United Nations Security Council to take action on Venezuela.
Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Daniela Desantis, additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, Mayela Armas in Caracas, and Alexandria Valencia in Quito, writing by Brian Ellsworth and Hugh Bronstein, editing by Matthew Lewis and Rosalba O’Brien