Venezuelan officials seek to block US-backed opposition leader from leaving country

CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuela's chief prosecutor asked the pro-government Supreme Court on Tuesday to prohibit opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaido from leaving the country and to freeze his bank accounts, prompting the United States, which a day earlier slapped sweeping sanctions on Venezuela's state-run oil company, to say there would be "serious consequences" if Guaido is harmed.

Speaking at the opposition-led National Assembly, which he heads, Guaido responded to the move by dismissing it as “nothing new under the sun.” He said it came from “a regime that doesn’t give answers to Venezuelans” and whose “only answer is persecution and repression.” Guaido added: “The world is clear on what’s happening in Venezuela. . . . Let’s not desist because of threats and persecution. We will continue to advance in our fight.”

The United States, which backs Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, pushed back hard against the chief prosecutor's effort. "We denounce the illegitimate former Venezuelan Attorney General's threats against President Juan Guaido," White House national security adviser John Bolton wrote on Twitter. "Let me reiterate - there will be serious consequences for those who attempt to subvert democracy and harm Guaido."

The chief prosecutor's request came after the United States escalated its efforts to unseat leftist President Nicolas Maduro on Monday by punishing the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), in an effort to transfer control over it to the opposition. The U.S. move freezes $7 billion in U.S.-based assets and blocks more than $11 billion in revenue that Venezuela would get from oil sales next year through its U.S.-based company Citgo, which owns three refineries in the United States and employs thousands of workers.

"Today's designation of PDVSA will help prevent further diverting of Venezuela's assets by Maduro and preserve these assets for the people of Venezuela," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement Monday. The Treasury Department said money would go to a fund that a transitional government headed by Guaido would eventually have access to.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also gave Guaido control over certain Venezuelan government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Revenue from oil sales to the United States and from Citgo, which imports Venezuela's heavy crude oil, refines it and distributes gasoline throughout the United States, is one of the Maduro administration's main sources of income. These oil sanctions, experts say, constitute the biggest blow that the populist Maduro, who rose to power in 2013 after leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez died and named him his successor, has ever confronted.


"Venezuelan heavy oil is not easy to place. These sanctions leave the government with a tiny maneuvering margin," said Henkel Garcia, head of local consulting firm Econometrica. "This is not just a big blow to Maduro but also to the Venezuelan people. It will hit the population hard in the short term with scarcity of food and medicines and even of gasoline."

Venezuela's government is responsible for more than half the country's imports of food and medicine. The country, which depends on oil production that has steeply fallen in recent years, also depends on imports of raw materials to manufacture and distribute basic goods. Even the processing of the country's heavy crude depends on imports of diluents and additives from the United States.

The sanctions come during a tense week in Venezuela. Overnight protests are surging and are being met with harsh repression. At least 35 people have been killed and more than 800 detained in a week. More protest marches are scheduled this week.

Many Venezuelans are desperate for change as they confront crippling hyperinflation and scarcity of vital medicines, but many worry that U.S. sanctions could make the dramatic situation even worse in the short term.

At a supermarket in central Caracas on Tuesday, people were making nervous purchases amid predictions that food would become scarcer after the sanctions.

Amaury Caraballo, 62, a businessman, said he has been trying to buy more food but that prices are too high to accumulate much.

"I support the sanctions because it's the only way to pressure the regime," he said. "Everyone in the country is struggling to find food and medicines already. I'm definitely worried the sanctions will harden the situation for us, and I'm getting prepared for it, but I think it will be a good thing in the long term."

A 63-year-old textile businessman, Jacobo Benzaken, said the sanctions would hit the people harder than they would hit the government.

"We will have no gasoline, no money, nothing," he said. "I'm scared of not having transportation, food. Everything is scary. If we're not doing well now, imagine what comes next?"

Freddy Guevara, an opposition leader who who has taken refuge inside the Chilean Embassy, tweeted: "Yesterday President Guaido achieved the protection of the republic's accounts abroad to avoid further robbing. Today the usurpers respond by freezing his checking account with which he recharges his phone balance. We're doing well Venezuela. (hash)assymetricwar"

In Washington, speculation about possible U.S. military intervention grew Monday after White House national security adviser John Bolton appeared at a news conference carrying a yellow notepad bearing the handwritten words, "5,000 troops to Colombia."

Speaking to soldiers before they held a military exercise in the Caracas suburb of Maracay, Maduro said the U.S. was leading a coup against him by threatening to send troops to the Colombian border, referring to the Bolton notepad.

"It's an infantile way of leading an imperialist foreign policy," Maduro said. "You, military leaders of our homeland have to stay loyal and subordinate, and defend us saying 'Yankee go home, get out of here."

He announced the intention of creating 5,000 "defense units" across the country and to grow the country's civilian militia to 2 million people. He then joined soldiers in the exercise, jogging with them.

This is the second military exercise Maduro has attended since his swearing in.

Separately, the State Department on Tuesday issued a new travel advisory for Venezuela, raising it to "Level 4 - Do Not Travel." The advisory cited "crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, and arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens." In its travel advisory dated Jan. 24, the department ordered "the departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and family members due to ongoing political instability."

Bolton has maintained that all options remain on the table when it comes to Venezuela, prompting questions about whether the top White House official showed off the notepad purposely as a warning and a show of mettle.


Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan said Tuesday that he has not spoken with Bolton about the possibility of deploying 5,000 troops to the U.S.-allied nation along Venezuela's western border. He declined to comment on whether he had spoken to anyone else in the administration about the possible involvement of American troops in the crisis.

"We are supporting, we are monitoring the situation very carefully, and we're watching," Shanahan said. "We are working very much in real time."

Shanahan said the National Security Council, under Bolton's leadership, has "created a number of options" with regard to Venezuela.

"We support them with their policy development, and as the situation in Venezuela evolves, we are there to give them advice and counsel and support," he said.

In a televised meeting with diplomats on Monday, Maduro fired back at the United States.

"John Bolton announced a series of immoral and illegal unilateral and criminal measures," he said. "With this measure they want to rob our company Citgo. Be alert, Venezuela." He added that the state oil company would take "legal and political actions" shortly.

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Krygier reported for The Washington Post from Miami. The Post’s Faiola reported from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Paul Sonne contributed to this report from Washington.