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Why even foes of Venezuela’s government are wary of U.S. oil sanctions

A demonstrator walks behind a fire barricade in Caracas while participating in a strike called to protest Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's government on July 20, 2017. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

It’s the “nuclear option” against Venezuela — a U.S. oil embargo that would hit the government of President Nicolás Maduro where it most hurts: the wallet.

As the crisis in Caracas intensifies, that lever has never been closer to being pulled. The Trump administration confirmed this past week that “all options are on the table” — including a ban on Venezuelan oil — if a July 30 vote aimed at changing the Venezuelan constitution isn’t called off. Venezuela's political opposition is portraying the ballot as illegal, as well as a pivotal step on the path to turning the country into a dictatorship. Protests have been going on for three months.

The United States has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan officials before. In February, the Treasury Department froze Vice President Tareck El Aissami's U.S. assets over his alleged involvement in narcotics trafficking. (El Aissami denies the charges.) But an oil embargo is a far more powerful tool.

The Maduro government, despite its anti-American rhetoric, depends on its oil trade with the United States to survive. With the collapse of much of the country's industry during its socialist experiment, oil now accounts for about 95 percent of the value of all Venezuelan exports. Most important, many of its other clients aren’t paying hard cash. Exports to China are largely to pay off Chinese loans. Those to Cuba are made in solidarity with a socialist brother-state.

That mostly leaves the United States, which takes in roughly a third of Venezuela’s production of about 2.1 million barrels a day. Since Venezuelan crude is rough and thick, the South American country also counts on imports of light crude from the United States to process its oil for export — making its trading relationship with the United States even more vital.

Those are all reasons, hawks argue, to go for the economic jugular, hurting Maduro and compelling the government to open a serious dialogue with the opposition over early elections.

People familiar with the talks say some in the Trump administration are favoring a tough stance, potentially including an embargo, while officials at the State and Energy departments are urging less dramatic options. In Venezuela, though, even some of Maduro’s foes are being cautious, warning that an embargo would come with serious risks.

Here are their concerns about an embargo:

It’s too blunt an instrument 

It might sting the United States to be indirectly propping up a Yankee-hating president with authoritarian tendencies. But those same oil sales are also propping up the long-suffering Venezuelan people.

The government uses the hard currency from its U.S. oil trade to finance imports of food and medicines, which are in critically short supply. So slapping an embargo on Venezuelan oil could quickly exacerbate the runaway inflation and scarcities of everything from toilet paper to antibiotics.

“It would be a catastrophe for the country because people would go hungry,” said Ángel Alvarado, a national legislator from the opposition Primero Justicia party. He noted that Venezuela was already suffering from low international oil prices and production problems. “It would mean less money to import food and less money for production.”

He added that the government would have only itself to blame should an embargo come to pass.

But others might see it differently.

An embargo gives Maduro someone else to blame

One of the big reasons that anti-government sentiment is building on Venezuelan streets is that people are blaming corruption and mismanagement by the government for food shortages and inflation. Yet, if the Americans pull the rug out from under the oil trade, it suddenly gives the fiery Maduro a scapegoat to the north.

In a region smarting from a long history of U.S. interventionism, even the leaders of neighboring nations who are critical of Maduro might find it harder to condemn him if he transforms this into a Latin America vs. the United States fight.

Already, Maduro is playing the Yanqui card.

“We will mobilize a great anti-imperialist force as we head to July 30, and we will defeat all the interventionist plans of the empire and their cronies in Latin America and the rest of the world,” Maduro said recently. He blames the country's economic and political crises on foreign powers and wealthy Venezuelans.

Over time, Venezuela could find other clients — and the United States could face economic pain, too.

Rejiggering a supply chain is not as easy as it sounds, and for a time, a U.S. oil embargo would probably hurt Venezuela deeply. But the Maduro government could eventually make up at least part of its lost U.S. sales. Experts point to India as one potential new market. As the government finds replacements, the United States risks losing a key source of leverage with Venezuela moving forward.

At the same time, the loss of Venezuelan oil would have a negative effect on the United States. It could hurt oil refineries in Texas and Louisiana whose business models were constructed around handling Venezuela’s heavy type of crude. In addition, U.S. consumers could see brief, if modest, hikes in gas prices as U.S. refineries sought to make up for those imports from elsewhere.

In addition, reestablishing oil imports from Venezuela if Maduro eventually steps down — when U.S. help would be vital to a national recovery — would be far from a cakewalk.

“The opposition is for sure considering that if there’s a change in government, it wouldn’t be easy to recover the commercial relationship,” said Mariano de Alba, a Venezuelan lawyer specializing in international relations. “If the U.S. closes its doors to Venezuelan oil, it will have to look for alternatives, and there’s no guarantee that those alternatives won’t be better.”

So what are the alternatives?

Carlos Vecchio, senior political strategist for the opposition Voluntad Popular party, recently met with U.S. officials and offered several alternatives. Among them:

— Don’t just freeze the accounts and assets of corrupt regime members but publish them in itemized form so the Venezuelan people can see evidence of government corruption for themselves.

— Block the sale of new Venezuelan debt and other government transactions in the U.S. financial system that do not have the approval of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, a body the Maduro government is seeking to squelch. Push the European Union to approve the same sanctions to put a squeeze on the government’s ability to obtain international financing without reinstituting the authority of the National Assembly.

— Block U.S. companies from engaging in future joint projects in the Venezuelan oil industry without the express approval of the National Assembly — thus forcing Maduro to restrain his assault on the legislature.

Analysts believe a decision by the Trump administration could come as early as this week. Maduro — and the Venezuelan people — will be watching.

Rachelle Krygier in Caracas contributed to this report.