The US is sending another large shipment of humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan border in Colombia, for the first time using US military aircraft as it increases pressure on Nicolas Maduro to give up power, according to a State Department email sent to Congress.
The announcement of additional aid came as the Trump administration added Venezuela’s oil boss and key intelligence officers to a long list of Maduro loyalists under US financial sanctions.
The 250 tons of food supplies, hygiene kits and nutritional supplements will begin arriving on Saturday to the border city of Cucuta, where tons of boxes of emergency aid stamped with the US flag are already warehoused awaiting delivery.
The aid came at the request of opposition leader Juan Guaido, who the US and dozens of other countries have recognised as Venezuela’s rightful leader after Mr Maduro last month was sworn in for a second presidential term widely seen as illegitimate.
Mr Guaido has vowed to deliver the aid over the objections of Mr Maduro, who in an exclusive interview with AP said the offer of US assistance represents “crumbs” compared with hostile efforts to block the country’s oil exports and restrict its access to foreign funding.
While the US military has long supported civilian-led humanitarian assistance missions around the world, this is the first time it has been used to deploy aid for Venezuela.
Last year, the US government sent more than 100 million dollars in aid to Cucuta to help Colombian authorities absorb some of the estimated three million Venezuelans fleeing hyper-inflation and food shortages.
In slapping new sanctions on Major General Manuel Quevedo, president of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said the oil executive had been instrumental in propping up what he called Mr Maduro’s illegitimate regime.
In the AP interview Mr Maduro said Maj Gen Quevedo had been in India this week looking to drum up new business for PDVSA after the company was hit with sanctions aimed at cutting off an estimated 11 billion dollars in profits.
The new sanctions also target four high-ranking intelligence officials, including the head of the feared SEBIN intelligence police and an elite commando unit known as FAES which is accused of several targeted killings.
In a statement, Mr Mnuchin accused the officials of corruption and helping Mr Maduro repress democracy in Venezuela — which includes “torture and other brutal use of force”.
“We are intent on going after those facilitating Maduro’s corruption and predation,” Mr Mnuchin said, adding that Maj Gen Quevedo and others have syphoned off funds that “rightfully belong to the people of Venezuela”.
The US sanctions block access to any property the individuals own in the United States and bans US citizens from doing business with them.
As US pressure mounted, secretary of state Mike Pompeo told reporters he sees clear signs that Mr Maduro is starting to understand Venezuelans reject him as their leader.
In the AP interview, Mr Maduro said he was willing to meet President Donald Trump at any time or place to resolve the crisis over US recognition of Mr Guaido.
Mr Pompeo said Mr Maduro’s request was not new, but it reflected that he is realising his crisis-riddled nation rejects his “model of governance”.