US President Donald Trump on Monday ordered a freeze on all Venezuelan government assets in the United States and barred transactions with its authorities, in Washington's latest move against President Nicolás Maduro.
The announcement came a day ahead of a major conference in Lima on the Venezuelan crisis, where the US delegation is set to announce "sweeping steps" against the regime in Caracas. Delegates from some 60 countries will meet Tuesday in Lima to discuss the political crisis in Venezuela, as Washington steps up pressure for President Maduro to step down.
Trump ordered a freeze on all Venezuelan government assets in the United States and barred transactions with its authorities "in light of the continued usurpation of power" by the socialist leader.
The meeting has been convened by the Lima Group, which includes a dozen Latin American countries and Canada and is helping to mediate in the crisis.
Trump's National Security Advisor John Bolton and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are in the US delegation, which is expected to announce further punitive measures against Maduro at the meeting in the Peruvian capital.
The "sweeping steps" will have "a lot of potential consequences," Bolton said, stressing that Trump is committed to a transition of power in Venezuela.
The oil-rich nation, already struggling with widespread economic woes, was plunged into a political crisis when National Assembly head Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president in January, accusing Maduro of usurping power.
Guaidó was recognised by dozens of nations, including the United States, but the efforts to oust Maduro have stalled despite the international support and widespread discontent with the president, who has been able to cling to power with the backing of the military and support from Russia and China.
Delegates from the government and the opposition camps have held talks, but Bolton said Maduro was "not serious."
"We're at a point where we need to see less talk and more action," he said, adding that it is Washington's "intention that the transfer [of power] be peaceful."
Venezuela has been in deep recession for five years. Shortages of food and medicine are widespread, and public services are progressively failing.
Around a quarter of the country's 30 million people need aid, according to United Nations, while 3.3 million have fled the country since the start of 2016.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says inflation will hit a staggering one million percent this year while the economy will shrink by 35 percent.
Trump took the step "in light of the continued usurpation of power by Nicolas Maduro and persons affiliated with him, as well as human rights abuses," according to the order.
The Wall Street Journal said the move was the first against a Western Hemisphere government in over 30 years, and imposes restrictions on Caracas similar to those faced by North Korea, Iran, Syria and Cuba.
Asked last week if he was considering a "blockade or quarantine" of Venezuela, Trump responded: "Yes, I am."
Trump's asset freeze order affects "all property and interests in property of the Government of Venezuela that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person."
These assets "are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in."
The measure also bars transactions with Venezuelan authorities whose assets are blocked.
It prohibits "the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order," as well as "the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person."
Guaidó tweeted his approval of the move, saying it "seeks to protect Venezuelans" from Maduro's "dictatorship."
"Those who support it, benefiting from the hunger and pain of Venezuelans, should know that it has consequences," Guaidó said.
Guaidó earlier this year declared himself interim president in a bid to oust Maduro. But the socialist leader has refused to yield, and in the executive order Trump blamed Maduro's government for "ongoing attempts to undermine" the opposition leader and the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which he leads.
Guaidó's efforts have meanwhile stalled despite the international support and widespread discontent with Maduro, who has been able to cling to power with the backing of the country's security forces.
The two sides began negotiating in Norway in May, with the most recent round of talks opening last week in Barbados.
Both Guaidó and Maduro have "reiterated their willingness" to resolve the political crisis, mediator Norway has said, but the talks have produced no resolution yet.
The parties have in the past laid out starkly opposing positions, with Guaidó and the opposition calling Maduro a "usurper" and accusing him of having rigged the 2018 poll that saw him re-elected.
They want him to stand down so new elections can be held.
Maduro has refused to resign and says the negotiations must lead to "democratic coexistence" and an end to what he describes as an attempted "coup" orchestrated by the United States.
Despite the loss of momentum, Guaidó remains the greatest threat to Maduro, even though the National Assembly has been effectively rendered powerless by Caracas.