The United States imposed sanctions Tuesday on seven Venezuelans, including the owner of news network Globovision, for allegedly plundering billions of dollars from the crisis-hit country through black-market currency exchanges.
Days before president Nicolas Maduro is to be sworn in for a new term after a controversial re-election, the United States vowed to go after the cash that has benefited his inner circle.
"Today's US Treasury action is another strong step to expose and cut off all who profit from and support this illegitimate regime," National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted.
According to the US Treasury Department, the sanctioned Venezuelans -- faced with a shortfall in their bolivar currency needed to fund government projects -- went to black-market exchange houses to sell dollars at a higher than official rate.
The scheme generated more than $2.4 billion, which went to government-approved exchange houses and ultimately to the officials themselves, who stashed the money in US and European bank accounts and investments, the Treasury Department said.
"Our actions against this corrupt currency exchange network expose yet another deplorable practice that Venezuela regime insiders have used to benefit themselves at the expense of the Venezuelan people," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
"The United States remains committed to holding accountable those responsible for Venezuela's tragic decline, and will continue to use diplomatic and economic tools to support the Venezuelan people's efforts to restore their democracy."
The Treasury Department froze all property and assets of the sanctioned Venezuelans inside the United States, with penalties for financial transactions involving them.
Venezuela heads to WTO
Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez denounced the sanctions, saying that only the United Nations can impose sanctions and that the US measure were therefore arbitrary.
"They're unilateral because they're imposed abusively by a government, and illegitimately because they have no legality," she told a news conference in Caracas.
Venezuela also took aim at previous US sanctions through the World Trade Organization, filing a complaint that accuses Washington of violating international trade law as it tries "to isolate Venezuela economically."
The complaint is a first step that could lead Caracas to request an arbitration panel from the Geneva-based trade body.
In contrast to its sanctions on Iran and North Korea, the United States has primarily targeted individuals in Venezuela, including Maduro personally, rather than seeking to squeeze the whole economy.
The latest individuals slapped with sanctions include Globovision owner Raul Gorrin Belisario, who has already been charged in a US court for allegedly bribing officials in Caracas and embezzling funds totaling more than $1 billion.
Globovision was the last Venezuelan network aligned with the opposition until its 2013 buyout by investors sympathetic to Maduro and his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.
The Treasury Department, however, granted an exemption for Globovision to keep operating in the United States for at least one year.
Also sanctioned was Claudia Patricia Diaz Guillen, who served as Venezuela's national treasurer from 2011 to 2013.
Venezuela has faced a mounting economic crisis as prices sag for its oil exports and Maduro's socialist government struggles to ensure supplies of medicine and basic foods.
Inflation is expected to soar to 10 million percent in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund.
More than 2.3 million people have fled Venezuela since 2015, with the United Nations expecting the number to surpass 5.3 million this year.
Maduro won a new six-year term in a May election marred by irregularities.
President Donald Trump has mused about military intervention in Venezuela, leading Maduro to allege there is a US-backed plot against him.
The Lima Group bloc of Latin American powers and Canada -- with the exception of Mexico -- has said it will not recognize the new Maduro-led administration set to begin on Thursday.