President Nicolás Maduro on Thursday called for a restructuring of Venezuela's foreign debt, blaming heightened U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration and potentially signaling a critical new phase in the country's economic collapse.
Maduro stopped short of declaring the kind of broad, messy default that analysts have feared in the oil-producing nation, and he said Venezuela would on Friday make a key $1.1 billion bond payment for its state energy firm, PDVSA.
But his blanket statement seemed an admission that Venezuela — buckling under low oil prices, a recession and the highest inflation rate in the world — was reaching the limits of its ability to keep servicing debt given sanctions and its economic stresses.
"I decree a refinancing and restructuring of all foreign payments," Maduro said on state TV late Thursday.
Despite their staunchly socialist policies, Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez — the left-wing firebrand who died in 2013 — kept up payments for nearly two decades, with Maduro paying foreign investors despite severe food and medical shortages at home.
Some observers have encouraged Maduro to stop paying foreign investors, calling it inhumane when soaring poverty and acute food and medical shortages have foisted suffering on millions of Venezuelans.
Yet a broad default could potentially make things worse, while also testing Maduro's grip on power. Should negotiations fail, creditors could attempt to seize Venezuelan assets overseas and put a chokehold on its primary source of revenue — oil.
On Thursday, analysts remained cautious about Maduro's intent, calling his words ambiguous. But his statement was bound to further spook markets, where expectations of a Venezueltan default have been seemingly growing by the day.
"It doesn't necessarily translate as default," said Asdrubal Oliveros, director of the Caracas-based Ecoanalítica. "We still need to see what happens in the next weeks. But clearly, it suggests that he's preparing the terrain for default for next year, when the country has $11 billion due in a year when there are also presidential elections."
Maduro said that Vice President Tareck El Aissami would head the national commission on restructuring — a move that could complicate what are likely to be difficult negotiations with creditors. El Aissami is on a U.S. sanction list for alleged corruption and narco-trafficking.
In announcing his decision, Maduro blamed a financial "blockade" by the United States — arguing that Venezuela still had cash but was being squeezed out of the global banking system, making payments nearly impossible.
President Trump has decried Venezuela as a brutal dictatorship, and in August he signed an executive order barring Venezuela and its state oil company — the parent of Citgo — from issuing new bonds and stocks in the U.S. financial system.Banks were also prohibited from new lending to the government. The move blocked, for instance, a repeat of the $2.8 billion bond deal with Goldman Sachs reached earlier this year that gave the cash-strapped Venezuelan government an important lifeline.
"Today, if Venezuela wants to go out to the world to refinance one of these bonds we have to pay, it can't. It's prohibited by the global financial dictatorship of the North American empire," Maduro said.
Venezuela is locked in a deep recession fueled by low oil prices, but also the cumulative effect of years of socialist policies that have eaten away at its economy and significantly curtailed its oil production. Its reserves stand at only $10 billion, much of which is in gold, not cash. It's total foreign debt, meanwhile, stands at around $143 billion.
Maduro blamed the domestic opposition for allegedly encouraging sanctions. Julio Borges, head of the opposition-dominated National Assembly that was robbed of its authority earlier this year, quickly rejected those claims.
"The traitor is Maduro, who indebted Venezuela irresponsibly and is now killing us of hunger," he said in a Twitter message.
Rachelle Krygier in Caracas contributed to this report.