“The United States is holding accountable those responsible for Venezuela’s tragic decline, and will continue to use the full suite of its diplomatic and economic tools to support Interim President Juan Guaido, the National Assembly, and the Venezuelan people’s efforts to restore their democracy,” Mnuchin said.
“Today’s designation of PDVSA will help prevent further diverting of Venezuela’s assets by Maduro and preserve these assets for the people of Venezuela. The path to sanctions relief for PDVSA is through the expeditious transfer of control to the Interim President or a subsequent, democratically elected government,” he said.
PDSVA is the acronym for the state-owned oil company.
Senator Marco Rubio, 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.”
Guaido, meanwhile, said Venezuela’s opposition is in behind-the-scenes talks with the military as he tries to wrest power from Nicolas Maduro.
“A political decision” by the army command “respecting the constitution” would topple incumbent President Maduro, Guaido said in an interview with the Colombian daily El Tiempo, published on Monday.
Asked if soldiers will comply, Guaido replied: “Yes, I believe that. And we are working to facilitate that route.”
Guaido earlier told the Washington Post that the opposition was holding talks with “government officials, civilian and military men”.
“This is a very delicate subject involving personal security. We are meeting with them, but discreetly,” he said.
The army has so far sided with Maduro. Guaido, who presides over the opposition- dominated National Assembly and declared himself interim president last week, has promised an amnesty to soldiers who support fresh elections and a political transition.
Maduro’s Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino meanwhile vowed to defend Venezuela against “any aggression, of any nature or intensity”.
“We would be unworthy of wearing this uniform and these symbols of the fatherland, if we did not face up to this difficult moment of an incontestable threat against the fatherland,” Padrino said before marching with top army brass through the Tiuna fortress in Caracas on Monday.
Maduro accuses the US of having instigated what he describes as Guaido’s attempt at a “coup” against his government.
Asked whether the US could at some point use force against the Maduro regime, Guaido told El Tiempo that “it is a very delicate subject” and that he hoped such a situation will never arise.
“However, the recent official statements of the State Department indicate that the United States will use all of its economic and diplomatic power, and not military, to pressure the Maduro regime,” he added.
At the weekend, Guaido tried to bring the army to his side by publishing the amnesty law approved by the National Assembly.
In comments to the broadcaster Telesur during Monday’s march, Padrino called the law “a document of manipulation” and said the army did not believe in it.
Guaido has called massive protests against the government for this week.
The opposition demands on the government include allowing humanitarian aid, made possible by a $US20-million pledge by the US, into the crisis-hit country.
The US oil sanctions will not likely affect consumer prices at the gas pump but will hit oil refiners, particularly those on the US Gulf Coast.
Venezuelan oil exports to the US 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 US 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 per cent of US crude imports.
Valero and Citgo are among the largest importers of Venezuelan crude.
But Venezuela is very reliant on the US for its oil revenue. The country sends 41 per cent of its oil exports to the US. Critically, US 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.
Pope Francis meanwhile refused to take sides in the political crisis gripping Venezuela.
“You know what scares me? Bloodshed,” Francis told journalists on the return trip to Rome after a visit to Panama, renewing calls for a “just and peaceful solution”.