US steps up sanctions on Venezuelan state oil company

The US has upped its efforts to push out President Nicolas Maduro with further sanctions on the Venezuelan oil industry. It comes after opposition leader Juan Guaido was stripped of parliamentary immunity.

US Vice President Mark Pence on Friday said the US had placed sanctions on 34 vessels belonging to Venezuela's state oil company and two companies that ship crude oil to Cuba, as Washington steps up its efforts against President Nicolas Maduro.

The sanctions are the most recent move by the US as it seeks to squeeze revenue from the cash-strapped leftist government amid a deepening political crisis in the country.

Read more: At Venezuela's Bolivar bridge, refugees begin an arduous journey

Despite more than 50 countries including the US, Britain, Canada, Germany and other EU nations having recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, Maduro has held onto power and enjoys backing from China and Russia.

"Venezuela's oil belongs to the Venezuelan people," Pence said in a speech at Rice University in Houston.

"Those looking on should know this: All options are on the table. And Nicolas Maduro would do well not to test the resolve of the United States of America," he said.

All transactions with listed ships banned

The Treasury Department said it was categorizing 34 vessels of state oil company PDVSA as blocked property, meaning that US citizens or entities are blocked from any financial transactions involving them.

The US also targeted a tanker that transports crude oil from Venezuela to its key ally Cuba, the Despina Andrianna, as well as two shipping companies linked to the vessel — one based in Greece and another in Liberia.

The US imposed sanctions on Venezuela's oil industry in January to cut off the government's most vital source of revenue.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement accused Cuba of propping up Maduro.

"The United States remains committed to a transition to democracy in Venezuela and to holding the Cuban regime accountable for its direct involvement in Venezuela's demise," Mnuchin said in a statement.

Venezuela on the brink

The last straw

In March 2017, violent protests erupted across the country in response to a Supreme Court decision to strip the legislative branch of its powers. Amid an international outcry, President Nicolas Maduro reversed the decision, but it was too late. Thousands continued to take to the streets, calling for new elections. More than 100 people were killed in clashes with security forces.

Venezuela on the brink

Hunger, a growing problem

The violence added to the ongoing economic and political crisis in Venezuela. Many Venezuelans spend more than 30 hours a week waiting in lines to shop, and are often confronted with empty shelves when they finally enter a store. President Maduro blames the crisis on US price speculation. The opposition, however, accuses the Socialist government of economic mismanagement.

Venezuela on the brink

Health care in crisis

The crisis has even affected health care in the oil-rich nation. Venezuelans often head to Colombia to collect medical supplies to send home, as seen in this picture. Hospitals across Venezuela have compared conditions to those seen only in war zones. As patient deaths rise, health officials have sounded the alarm on the rise of malaria and dengue fever.

Venezuela on the brink

Power grab

By July 2017, Venezuela's pro-government Constituent Assembly was established. For observers, it had all the hallmarks of a power grab. The new body adopted the authority to pass legislation on a range of issues, effectively taking away the powers of Venezuela's elected congress, which was under the opposition's control. The move drew wide international condemnation.

Venezuela on the brink

The West sanctions

In response to the political crisis, the United States and European Union imposed a series of sanctions against ruling officials. The US blacklisted members of the Constituent Assembly and froze all of Maduro's assets that are subject to US jurisdiction. The EU banned arms sales to the country.

Venezuela on the brink

Government victorious in regional elections

In October 2017, Venezuela held two votes: regional elections and elections for governors, which were long overdue. The opposition boycotted the vote, but then split, as some candidates and small parties chose to participate. This caused a deep rift within Maduro's opponents. The government went on to sweep the vote, which detractors say was unfair and heavily favored the regime.

Venezuela on the brink

Debt default

In November 2017, the oil-rich, cash-poor nation faced its day of reckoning. Credit ratings agencies declared Venezuela and its state-run oil company in "selective default." But Russia offered to restructure the South American country's debt to ensure Caracas pays its other creditors. US and EU sanctions, however, limited the chance of an agreement.

Venezuela on the brink

Presidential elections scheduled

The National Assembly announced in January 2018 that it would grant Maduro's call for snap presidential elections. The electoral authority, CNE, held the elections on May 20. The EU, the US and 14 Latin American nations warned that they would not recognize the results. The mainstream MUD opposition alliance boycotted the vote, leaving only one possible outcome.

Venezuela on the brink

Maduro wins ...

Maduro was re-elected to a second six-year term with about 68 percent of the vote. Turnout was only 46 percent, according to electoral authorities. However, the MUD opposition alliance put turnout at less than 30 percent. The Organization of American States (OAS) called the elections neither free nor fair.

Venezuela on the brink

... Guaido assumes power

But weeks into the new year, the situation took a drastic turn. On January 23, 2019, parliament president Juan Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela — a move that was quickly recognized by US President Donald Trump. Maduro called it a US-backed "coup." Days later, the US sanctioned Venezuela's state oil firm, while Guaido staked his claim on the country's foreign assets.

law/jm (AFP, AP)

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.