U.S. imposes sanctions on Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA

The United States has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA, White House national security adviser John Bolton says.

White House downplays '5,000 troops to Colombia' note seen at news conference

A Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., employee walks past a mural at the company's facility in El Tigre, Venezuela. The U.S. government has frozen the state-owned oil company's assets in the U.S. and barred Americans from doing business with the firm. (Bloomberg)

The Trump administration imposed sanctions Monday on the state-owned oil company of Venezuela, a potentially critical economic move aimed at increasing pressure on President Nicolas Maduro to cede power to the opposition in the South American nation.

The sanctions, announced by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and national security adviser John Bolton, include a freeze on any assets that Petroleos De Venezuela SA (PDVSA) has in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with the company.

That means Maduro's increasingly isolated government will lose access to one of its most important sources of income and foreign currency along with around $7 billion in PDVSA assets. 

The move follows the unusual decision by the U.S. and other nations last week to recognize the opposition leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the interim president of Venezuela instead of Maduro, who was re-elected last year in an election widely seen as fraudulent. The once prosperous nation has been in an economic collapse, with several million citizens fleeing to neighbouring countries.

"We have continued to expose the corruption of Maduro and his cronies, and today's action ensures they can no longer loot the assets of the Venezuelan people," Bolton said at a White House news conference.

Bolton said he expects Monday's actions against PDVSA will result in more than $11 billion US in lost export proceeds over the next year.

​In remarks televised Monday on state TV, Maduro called the sanctions "criminal" and accused the U.S. of robbing Venezuelans of oil riches that rightfully belong to them.

"Hands off Venezuela," Maduro said forcefully in a direct message to Trump. The embattled president said he will be announcing a range of measures in response to the U.S. sanctions within the coming hours but has provided no details.

Troops to Colombia?

Reporters noticed during the news conference Bolton was holding a notepad, on which he had written "5,000 troops to Colombia" — fuelling speculation that Washington is mulling military intervention in the region. When asked about the note, the White House restated that "all options are on the table."

The phrase '5,000 troops to Colombia' was spotted on national security adviser John Bolton's notepad during Monday's press briefing at the White House. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Colombia borders Venezuela and its government has sided with the U.S. in opposing Maduro. Trump and other administration officials have repeatedly said "all options" are under consideration as they seek to pressure Maduro to give up power. 

Oil exports to U.S. declining

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that the new sanctions do not target the people of Venezuela and will not affect humanitarian assistance, including medicine and medical devices that are "desperately needed after years of economic destruction under Maduro's rule."

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida., a vocal critic of Maduro who has called for such sanctions, welcomed the move even before it was announced.

"The Maduro crime family has used PDVSA to buy and keep the support of many military leaders," Rubio said. "The oil belongs to the Venezuelan people, and therefore the money PDVSA earns from its export will now be returned to the people through their legitimate constitutional government."

The sanctions will not likely affect consumer prices at the gas pump but will hit oil refiners, particularly those on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Venezuelan oil exports to the U.S. have declined steadily over the years, falling particularly sharply over the past decade as its production plummeted amid its long economic and political crisis. The U.S. imported less than 500,000 barrels a day of Venezuelan crude and petroleum products in 2017, down from more than 1.2 million barrels a day in 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Still, Venezuela has consistently been the third- or fourth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States, and any disruption of imports could be costly for refiners. In 2017, the most recent year that data were available, Venezuela accounted for about 6 percent of U.S. crude imports.

Valero and Citgo are among the largest importers of Venezuelan crude.

Mnuchin said the Treasury Department also took steps Monday to authorize certain transactions and activities with PDVSA. He said Citgo assets in the United States will be allowed to continue to operate — provided that any funds that would otherwise go to the state-owned oil company be sent to a blocked account in the United States.

Venezuela is very reliant on the U.S. for its oil revenue. The country sends 41 per cent of its oil exports to the U.S. Critically, U.S. refiners are among the few customers that pay cash to Venezuela for its oil. That's because Venezuela's oil shipments to China and Russia are usually taken as repayment for billions of dollars in debts.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News