MIAMI — The United States imposed new sanctions Thursday on Venezuela and Cuba and promised additional penalties against Nicaragua as the Trump administration laid out a hard-line policy toward countries the White House branded a “troika of tyranny.”
National security adviser John Bolton condemned what he called the "destructive forces of oppression, socialism and totalitarianism" that he said the three countries represent.
In a speech in Miami, home to thousands of exiles from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, Bolton said the U.S. "will no longer appease dictators and despots near our shores in this hemisphere." He spoke at the Freedom Tower, a building where Cubans fleeing the revolution led by Fidel Castro received U.S. government documents in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The new Venezuela sanctions target the country's gold sector, prohibiting U.S. citizens and entities from financial involvement in the trade.
American officials have said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro illegally exported at least 21 metric tons of gold to Turkey to avoid U.S. sanctions and to try to help rescue a collapsing economy once bolstered by vast oil reserves.
The U.S. government has sanctioned dozens of top Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, as part of economic measures designed at pressuring the South American country's return to democracy.
Bolton said in response to questions after the speech that he doesn't expect the U.S. military would intervene in Venezuela. "I don't see that happening," he said.
Bolton blamed Cuba for enabling Maduro's government and he urged the nations of the region to "let the Cuban regime know that it will be held responsible for continued oppression in Venezuela."
In a contrast to the policy of the Obama administration, which restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, Bolton said Trump's State Department has added more than two dozen entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military and intelligence services to a restricted list of entities with which financial transactions by U.S. persons are prohibited.
Bolton said the goal is to prevent money from reaching the Cuban military, security and intelligence services.
South Florida has long been home to a large community of Cubans emigres, many of whom will welcome a tougher line on the Havana government. In recent years, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have settled in the area as Venezuela's economy has collapsed. Bolton's speech may energize voters in both groups heading into Tuesday's elections.
"There is no doubt the speech had an electoral purpose," said Harold Trinkunas, deputy director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. "The timing and the location have an electoral impact and Florida is an important state for the Republican Party."
Nevertheless, Trinkunas said the approach of imposing sanctions on the gold industry is a sign of how important the metal has become to Maduro's effort to prop up the Venezuelan economy.
Bolton also sent a strong warning to President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, where more than 300 people have been killed since protests erupted in April calling for Ortega's resignation.
"Free, fair, and early elections must be held in Nicaragua, and democracy must be restored to the Nicaraguan people," he said. "Until then, the Nicaraguan regime, like Venezuela and Cuba, will feel the full weight of America's robust sanctions regime."
In grouping the three countries together, Bolton said "this troika of tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere."
Bolton mocked the leaders, comparing them to The Three Stooges. "These tyrants fancy themselves strongmen and revolutionaries, icons and luminaries," he said. "In reality, they are clownish, pitiful figures more akin to Larry, Curly, and Moe."
On the other hand, Bolton called Brazil's president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, a "likeminded leader" and said his election last weekend demonstrates "a growing regional commitment to free-market principles, and open, transparent, and accountable governance."
Bolsonaro whose victory moved Brazil sharply to the right, built his popularity on a mixture of often outrageous comments and hard-line positions, but he consolidated his lead by promising to enact market-friendly reforms.
Alonso reported from Washington.