The Trump administration has tightened the screws on Venezuela ’s embattled president, Nicolás Maduro, announcing sanctions against the country’s state-owned oil company PDVSA in what the US national security adviser admitted was partly an attempt to counter strategic threats from Cuba and Iran.
At a briefing in the White House, the US treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, told reporters the sanctions would help punish “those responsible for Venezuela’s tragic decline” and boost Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who last week declared himself Venezuela’s rightful interim president and was recognized by the United States.
“It is a complete tragedy to have a humanitarian crisis in a country that has very rich resources,” Mnuchin said.
The sanctions – which represent the US’s toughest economic move against Maduro to date – come five days after Guaidó’s dramatic declaration sparked Venezuela’s latest political crisis.
The national security adviser, John Bolton, said $7bn of PDVSA assets would be immediately blocked as a result of the sanctions while the company would also lose an estimated $11bn in export proceeds over the coming year.
Bolton said the sanctions were an attempt to alleviate “the poverty and the starvation and the humanitarian crisis” currently gripping the South American nation and stop “Maduro and his cronies” looting the assets of the Venezuelan people.
“Now is the time to stand for democracy and prosperity in Venezuela,” he said, calling on “all responsible nations” to back Guaidó.
However, Bolton also conceded US strategic interests were in play, including concerns about the presence and activities of US foes in the region.
“We think stability and democracy in Venezuela are in the direct national interests of the United States right now,” Bolton told reporters. “The authoritarian regime of Chávez and Maduro has allowed the penetration by adversaries of the United States, not least of which is Cuba.”
He added: “Some call the country ‘Cubazuela’, reflecting the grip that Cuba’s military and security forces have on the Maduro regime. We think that is a strategic significant threat to the United States and there are others as well, including Iran’s interest in Venezuela’s uranium deposits.”
Maduro hit back in a live broadcast to the nation from the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas.
“This group of extremists that have stormed the White House have no limits,” he said, attacking the “belittlement, disdain and aggression” with which he claimed “Donald Trump’s unfit government” treated Venezuela.
Amir Richani, a Latin America analyst at ClipperData, which tracks energy shipments, said the sanctions were intended “to continue the asphyxiation of Maduro’s government” and would come as a major blow.
The US is the biggest importer of Venezuelan crude, followed by India and China, last year importing an average of around 500,000 barrels a day.
Richani said the sanctions indicated the White House had decided to go “all-out” against Maduro: “This is a really dangerous situation for Caracas.”
The notepad Bolton was holding as he took to the stage hinted at just how potentially dangerous it could be. A handwritten note on its yellow pages appeared to read: “5,000 troops to Colombia”.
I hold Donald Trump responsible for any violence that might come to pass in Venezuela
Asked if there was any possibility of US troops getting involved in the Venezuelan crisis, Bolton replied: “Look, the president has made it very clear on this matter that all option are on the table.”
Any violence against Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition or US diplomatic staff “would be met by a significant response”.
In his televised broadcast Maduro accused Bolton and Trump of seeking to destroy his leftist “Bolivarian” administration through a coup that risked plunging Venezuela into conflict.
“I hold Donald Trump responsible for any violence that might come to pass in Venezuela. It will be you, señor presidente Donald Trump, responsible for this policy of regime change in Venezuela, and the blood that might flow in Venezuela will be on your hands … You will have your hands covered in blood, if you lead Venezuela into partial or generalised violence.”
Earlier on Monday, Pope Francis said he feared bloodshed.
Speaking on the papal plane as he returned from a five-day visit to Panama, the pope told reporters: “In this moment, I support all the Venezuelan people because they are a people who are suffering.
“I suffer for what is happening in Venezuela. What is it that scares me? Bloodshed.”
The Republican senator Marco Rubio celebrated the fresh sanctions, tweeting : “All property & interests of PdVSA are now blocked and US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.”
Rubio, thought to have been a major influence in Trump’s decision to recognize Guaidó, added: “ Venezuela ’s oil belongs to the Venezuelan people and the money for oil will now go to them through the legitimate government of Guaido.”
In a second tweet, Rubio posted a photograph of Maduro and wrote: “All bad things must also come to an end.”
In the latest sign of coordination between Guaidó and the White House, Guaidó also announced on Monday plans to name a new board for PDVSA and its US refining subsidiary, Citgo. The move would help kickstart the recovery of an industry “that today is living through a dark moment,” Guaidó tweeted.
This article provided by NewsEdge.