The Trump administration announced Monday it is sanctioning Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, blocking $7 billion in assets and potentially costing the country $11 billion in oil revenues, according to National Security Adviser John Bolton.
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The move is meant to put the squeeze on President Nicolás Maduro after the U.S. recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president and has tried to force Maduro to exit after what the U.S. says is his political crackdown, consolidation of power, and corrupt mismanagement of the country.
The sanctions block all U.S. persons or businesses from working with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., known by the acronym PDVSA, and funds from any purchases of Venezuelan oil will now have to go into special accounts Maduro’s government is blocked from accessing, according to the Treasury Department.
Some licenses will be granted to continue work with PDVSA, including for Citgo — the U.S. energy company that PDVSA owns — but those revenues will be held in a blocked account, too, according to Mnuchin, who said Guaidó should be given access to those funds.
That’s a big boost to his fledgling self-declared government, and Mnuchin said these oil sanctions could be completely lifted once Guaidó has full control of PDVSA: “When there is a recognition that the company is the property of, the rightful rulers, the rightful leaders, then indeed that money will be available to Guaido. We will be working with them on the money in the blocked account and whether that can be used for them.”
The move is sure to even further disrupt Maduro’s government, which maintains the loyalty of Venezuela’s military top brass but could be left unable to pay them. While a handful of military and diplomatic officials have sworn allegiance to Guaidó in the last week, losing access to Venezuela’s coffers could unleash a wave of defections.
Maduro seemed to be moving to reassert his authority on Monday, offering to meet with President Donald Trump for talks, according to his foreign minister Jorge Arreaza.
In a news conference Monday, Arreaza asserted that the U.S. continues to have diplomatic relations with Maduro’s government after recognizing Guaidó, even reading some of the diplomatic notes the U.S. has sent and showing a photo of U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Jimmy Story’s meeting with the Vice Chancellor on Saturday.
“Diplomatic relations are not simply about statements,” he added, a dismissal of the U.S. recognition of Guaidó.
The White House has not responded yet to that offer to meet.
But Bolton painted a picture of weakening Maduro control on Monday, saying the U.S. knows through “numerous contacts on the ground” that the military’s rank and file are “acutely aware of the desperate economic conditions in the country and we think they look for ways to support the National Assembly government.”
Even among the top brass, he said, there are high-level contacts between the general officers and the opposition — including among those that posed with the Defense Minister last week as he reiterated his allegiance to Maduro: “What [the Maduro government] didn’t know was how many of them were already talking to the National Assembly,” he said of that photo-op.
A handful of senior Venezuelan military and diplomatic officials in the U.S. have already turned. Maduro said he would break diplomatic ties with the U.S. and close the country’s embassy and consulates and ordered all diplomats home. But a handful instead defected to join Guaidó’s government, which has promised amnesty to anyone in the military who disavows Maduro and even floated it for Maduro himself.
Col. José Luis Silva, the military attaché at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, announced he was breaking with Maduro in an interview with the Miami Herald on Saturday, adding, “My message to all armed forces members, to everyone who carries a gun, is to please let’s not attack the people. We are also part of the people, and we’ve had enough of supporting a government that has betrayed the most basic principles and sold itself to other countries.”
On Sunday, another senior official joined him — the deputy chief of the Venezuelan consulate in Miami, Scarlet Salazar — posting in a video online where she added, “This decision abides by my democratic principles and values as a career diplomatic officer serving Venezuela for more than 18 uninterrupted years.”
The U.S. has maintained its own diplomatic presence in the country, even after Maduro said he would give U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave.
The State Department ordered the evacuation of non-emergency staff and families out of concern for their safety, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. would not obey the full order because Maduro was the “former” president and his commands were “illegitimate.” He left behind a small crew of 25 or so employees, including Chargé d’Affaires Story.
That set up a showdown by Sunday morning, with Bolton threatening action: “Any violence and intimidation against U.S. diplomatic personnel, Venezuela’s democratic leader, Juan Guiadó, or the National Assembly itself would represent a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response,” he tweeted.
But Maduro backed down, suspending his order and giving the U.S. 30 days to negotiate or withdraw its remaining personnel. Arreazza added Monday that all Venezuelan diplomats had left the U.S. and the U.S. should also respect the 30-day deadline, too.
The State Department also announced another staffing change Friday, bringing on Elliott Abrams as a special envoy for Venezuela. Abrams was an Assistant Secretary of State under President Reagan and a Deputy National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush, making him a controversial choice for his role in Reagan’s support for Latin American dictatorships, his cover-up of the Iran-Contra affair, and his support for the Iraq War. Abrams pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for withholding evidence to Congress, but was later pardoned by George H.W. Bush.
ABC News’s Davi Merchan contributed to this report from Cúcuta, Colombia.