US shifts targets in Venezuela policy
Petroleumworld 04 16 2019
The US administration, frustrated that it has not been able to force Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro from power, is trying a new tack by targeting an old foe: Cuba.
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) today imposed sanctions on four companies that own tankers transporting crude and oil products from Venezuela to Cuba. That follows the Treasury's move a week ago to designate two non-US shipping firms involved in shuttling oil between Venezuela and Cuba as the administration works to isolate Venezuela from a key ally.
Those designations may have small impact on Venezuela and oil markets in general. But Washington is hoping that undermining Cuba will have the indirect effect of ending its support for Caracas, which the US says has been crucial in Maduro's ability to survive despite US sanctions.
Today's sanctions "seek to hinder the regime's further theft and the predatory influence of Cuba, which takes Venezuela's oil and pays the regime with security and intelligence forces to keep Nicolas Maduro in power," secretary of state Mike Pompeo said.
"I do not really think Maduro is giving orders. I think he is taking orders from Havana," White House national security adviser John Bolton said in a radio interview yesterday.
To underscore the point, Bolton says he plans to attend the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association convention in Miami next week to deliver remarks on the administration's steps "to confront security threats related to Cuba and Venezuela." The convention marks the 58th anniversary of the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba by paramilitary forces opposed to Fidel Castro's government.
President Donald Trump's administration similarly has hinted at a possible military intervention in Venezuela, but that has turned out to be a bluff so far. The promise of humanitarian aid, threats of new sanctions and tweets from Bolton have not swayed senior Venezuelan military commanders to switch their allegiance to National Assembly speaker Juan Guaidó, whom Washington recognizes as Venezuela's interim leader.
Senator Rick Scott (R-Florida) yesterday called for the administration to deploy military force to deliver the more than 500 tons of food and medicine into Venezuela from staging points in Colombia, Brazil and Curacao.
But the State Department countered that "our economic and diplomatic pressure is something we are going to continue to pursue."
Raul Castro, the octogenarian head of Cuba's Communist Party, warned in a speech to the Cuban national assembly on 10 April that economic conditions, including fuel shortages, could worsen in response to tougher US sanctions.
Washington is also stepping up its diplomatic efforts to persuade more countries to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's interim leader — 54 already do. The Organization of American States this week granted that recognition, expelling Maduro's representative to the organization and accepting credentials from Guaido's designated envoy.
Vice president Mike Pence traveled to New York on 10 April to make the case that the UN should do the same. "This body should revoke the credentials of Venezuela's representative to the UN, recognize interim president Juan Guaidó, and seat the representative of the free Venezuelan government in this body without delay," Pence told the UN Security Council.
The prospect is unlikely, as Russia and China will veto the move at the UN Security Council and 139 out of 193 UN members continue to recognize the Maduro government.
The US efforts to achieve a similar recognition for Guaidó's government in the IMF and World have been similarly unsuccessful even though both organizations say that they have done the preparatory work for a massive recovery program for Venezuela should a new government in Caracas request such assistance.
The question of which government represents Caracas is showing up in US courts, where multiple companies are staking out claims for PdV-owned US refiner Citgo to satisfy their unpaid debts.
"As the Assads and Castros of the world will attest, our nation's record of pressuring dictators into retirement through economic pressure is not one of unalloyed success," one of those claimants, Crystallex, wrote in a recent filing before the 3rd US Circuit of Court of Appeals.
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