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US senators push for action on Venezuela

03 May 2017 22:12 (+01:00 GMT)
US senators push for action on Venezuela

Washington, 3 May (Argus) — A bipartisan group of US senators is urging President Donald Trump's administration to address growing turmoil in Venezuela.

But the administration, just like its predecessor, is sticking to a policy of non-intervention, watching from the sidelines as unrest grows in the country that accounts for a tenth of US crude oil imports.

"The US must stand with and support the Venezuelan people as they struggle to defend their rights," senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said today. Rubio joined Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and eight other senators from both parties to unveil legislation writing into law existing US sanctions on Venezuela and extending $10mn in humanitarian assistance.

The bill also would recommend the administration seek to prevent Russia's state-controlled Rosneft from taking over Venezuelan state-owned PdV's US subsidiary Citgo. PdV late last year appears to have pledged Citgo as collateral for a loan from Rosneft, under undisclosed terms.

The proposed legislation is largely symbolic. But it expresses commonly felt frustration in the Senate and the House that the US is not doing enough to stop the chaos in Venezuela.

Pro-democracy demonstrators and security forces have been clashing in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities since President Nicolas Maduro's government in March moved to sideline the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Venezuela's opposition leaders called for outright rebellion against the government after Maduro on 1 May convened a constituent assembly, in another power grab by his regime.

The US State Department expressed support for the National Assembly and expressed concerns over Maduro's latest decision.

The situation in Venezuela is "a real tragedy," US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said today. "We are hopeful that working with others, including interventions by others in Europe, that we may be able to gain some traction in Venezuela."

The US is prepared to provide humanitarian assistance to Venezuela in addition to working with other countries to find a common regional approach, deputy assistant secretary of state Michael Fitzpatrick said yesterday.

"At the end of the day, this is a Venezuelan problem," Fitzpatrick said. "They need to live together or get a divorce, and it is kind of hard to divorce your country, so they need to find a way to live together."

Career diplomats and US military officials also point out that any public statements from Washington would be counterproductive given the anti-US sentiments routinely invoked by the Maduro regime.

"When I mention the word Venezuela, tomorrow the newspapers of Caracas will have stories that the US is engaged in operations against Venezuela," Admiral Kurt Tidd said at a congressional hearing last month. "But nothing could be further from the truth." Tidd, who oversees US military cooperation with South American countries, predicted that the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela could eventually compel a regional response.

US imported 741,000 b/d of crude oil from Venezuela last year, or 9.4pc of the total, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Venezuela emerged as the third-biggest consumer of US crude oil after the US lifted export restrictions in December 2015, as PdV blends Domestic Sweet Blend with its extra-heavy Orinoco crude output. Venezuela's oil output slipped below 2mn b/d in February and March, according to Argus estimates.

Venezuela accounts for about 2pc of global output, so the trend of falling output and exports could add marginal upward pressure on global prices, according to former EIA administrator Adam Sieminski, who now heads the energy and geopolitics program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.