WASHINGTON — President Trump signed an executive order on Monday imposing new economic sanctions on the government of Venezuela, escalating his campaign to remove President Nicolás Maduro from office.
The White House announced the action, which freezes the property and assets of the Venezuelan government and those of any individuals who assist Venezuelan officials affected by the order, on the eve of an international conference on Venezuela in Lima, Peru. Several Trump officials, including the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, are scheduled to attend the gathering, which will discuss ways to “restore democracy” to Venezuela, according to Peru’s government.
Mr. Trump’s order cited “the continued usurpation of power” by Mr. Maduro as well as “human rights abuses, including arbitrary or unlawful arrest and detention of Venezuelan citizens, interference with freedom of expression, including for members of the media, and ongoing attempts to undermine Interim President Juan Guaidó and the Venezuelan National Assembly’s exercise of legitimate authority in Venezuela.”
The Trump administration has thrown its support behind Mr. Guaidó, who has called Mr. Maduro an illegitimate leader. In April, the Trump administration supported his calls for generals to rise up against the socialist president, but Mr. Maduro retained the support of the military and squelched the immediate threat to his power. Using Mr. Trump as a foil, he has cast himself as a brave survivor against American imperial influence.
The effects of the sanctions were not immediately clear. Several sanctions experts on Monday night questioned initial news media reports that characterized the action as a total “embargo” on Venezuela. Given that Mr. Trump has repeatedly placed sanctions on Mr. Maduro’s government since taking office, some predicted a modest economic effect.
“This appears to be more light than heat,” said Richard Nephew, a former State Department official who has written a book on economic sanctions and is a scholar at Columbia. “This is not an embargo. It does not create penalties for business with Venezuela altogether, it just denies such activities with the government of Venezuela, and it is doubtful there were any of those still extant to be cut off by this action.”
Others predicted more severe consequences.
While the sanctions prohibit doing business only with the Venezuelan state, they could harm the country’s surviving private firms, which already struggle to find suppliers and make payments abroad, said Francisco Rodríguez, chief economist of the New York-based brokerage Torino Capital and former economic adviser to a Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate.
“Financial institutions will be cautious not to make dealings with Venezuelan private sector firms, which could be perceived as proxies for the Venezuelan government,” he said.
Fernando Cutz, who oversaw South America policy at the White House under Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the former national security adviser, said the new order, at a minimum, “puts Venezuela on a list of really horrendous regimes out there.”
The test, Mr. Cutz said on Monday night, is whether the new sanctions prevent Russia and China from receiving Venezuelan oil as part of a debt repayment program. If so, he said, “that’s a pretty significant thing, and then the question is how Russia and China will respond, more than anything else.”
He said that Russia was close to being paid in full for its debt relief to Venezuela, but that China was on pace to be receiving oil from the South American country until early 2021. “They might stand to lose more,” said Mr. Cutz, who is now at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington.
Venezuela’s imports per capita have already fallen to the lowest level since the 1950s. The country’s imports totaled just $303 million in April, down 92 percent from the same month in 2012, according to Torino Capital.
Venezuela’s economy was already forecast to decline 35 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. By the end of this year, the country’s gross domestic product will have shrunk by two-thirds since 2013, making it the largest economic collapse in a country outside of war since at least the 1970s.
The sanctions could also strain the lackluster political negotiations between Mr. Maduro and the country’s opposition, now based in Barbados and Norway, which many political analysts see as a final chance for a peaceful political transition in the country. Mr. Maduro’s negotiators have offered the opposition a prospect of presidential elections in return for the lifting of American sanctions — a possibility made more distant by the Trump administration’s action.
The order includes an exception for humanitarian goods such as food, clothing and medicine.
After Mr. Trump responded affirmatively to a reporter’s question last week about whether he was considering an embargo against Venezuela, an angry Mr. Maduro said on state television Friday that such a move would be “clearly illegal.” Mr. Maduro said he had asked Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations to protest the threat at the United Nations Security Council.
Trump officials have been frustrated by support for the Maduro government from Russia, China and Cuba, but have been able to do little to prevent it.
But Mr. Trump has happily embraced Venezuela’s socialist government as a political talking point, repeatedly citing its devastated economy as a cautionary tale of what he says Democrats would do if they were to win power in the United States. Mr. Trump’s Democratic critics say he has taken an unusual interest in the country mainly for that reason, and to impress Cuban and Venezuelan émigrés in the electorally crucial state of Florida.