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Trump administration warns financial institutions about doing business with Venezuela’s Maduro government

Juan Guaidó, center, who has been recognized as Venezuela’s interim president by dozens of countries, leaves after a session of Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas on March 6, 2019.
Juan Guaidó, center, who has been recognized as Venezuela’s interim president by dozens of countries, leaves after a session of Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas on March 6, 2019. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)
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The Trump administration warned foreign financial institutions Wednesday that they will face U.S. sanctions if they engage in transactions benefiting the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro.

Unnamed banks were being put “on notice,” national security adviser John Bolton said in a statement.

The statement followed a principals’ committee meeting late Tuesday of President Trump’s top national security aides to explore additional ways to pressure Maduro. The United States and dozens of other countries have declared Maduro’s government illegitimate and recognized Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s national assembly, as interim president.

Trump has refused to rule out the possible use of military forces in removing Maduro from power. But such a move would have broad international ramifications and would put Latin American countries, which support Guaidó but are leery of U.S. military intervention to install him in office, in a difficult position.

The accidental leader: How Juan Guaidó became the face of Venezuela’s opposition

Trump “has been very clear he wants a peaceful transfer of power,” Bolton said in an interview Tuesday with “Lou Dobbs Tonight.”

The administration imposed sanctions in January on PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. Since then, “we’ve seen . . . Maduro and some of his cohorts in the regime trying to move money around. It’s kind of like a last gasp” to keep control of fast-dwindling state assets, said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss plans for further sanctions.

Under the oil sanctions, any money paid to PDVSA through the U.S. banking system is being put in escrow for the eventual use of the recognized Guaidó government.

Maduro officials have been seeking alternative markets for oil — Venezuela’s main export, much of which was previously purchased by the United States — along with access to national gold reserves and cash held in foreign banks.

“They’ve been moving from individual accounts, moving accounts from government entities, in various duplicitous ways,” the senior official said. “We will be tracking further movements in the days to come, and you’ll be seeing some rollouts on financial institutions.”

The sanctions will affect transactions with the accounts of both Venezuelan state-owned companies and individuals in the Maduro government with their own accounts and access to government accounts, the official said.

U.S. use of so-called “secondary sanctions,” imposed on foreign companies and financial institutions that deal with sanctioned entities, have frequently come under international criticism. Over the past several months, the United States has succeeded in appealing to a number of countries and banks dealing with Venezuela to take steps to put assets out of reach of Maduro and members of his government.

The Bank of England has frozen more than $1.5 billion in Venezuelan gold reserves, and the United Arab Emirates and Portugal have agreed to stop buying Venezuelan gold. It is unclear whether Turkey, which also had agreed to accept transferred gold, has continued with those transactions.

Last month, PDVSA began telling customers of its joint oil ventures to start depositing sales proceeds in an account recently opened at Russia’s Gazprombank, Reuters reported. In addition to Chevron and several other U.S. companies working in the Venezuelan oil industry, which were given six-month exemptions to the PDVSA sanctions, Venezuela has joint ventures with Norway, France and others.

Reuters also reported that India, another major purchaser of Venezuelan oil, has asked buyers to move payments to PDVSA away from the U.S. financial system to avoid the money being seized.

“We’ve asked India and other partners” to join the oil sanctions, “and are working with them to have that arrangement, but everything is on the table in that regard,” the administration official said.

India is one of the countries that continue to recognize the Maduro government. Venezuela’s oil minister visited there last month to persuade the two major oil purchasers — Reliance Industries Ltd., which operates the world’s largest refining complex, and Nayara Energy, partially owned by Russia’s Rosneft oil giant — to buy more. The minister, Manuel Quevedo, told reporters he wanted to see the creation of a non-dollar trading bloc involving China, India and Russia, Reuters reported.

Russia and China, major backers of Maduro, last month vetoed a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the United Nations Security Council calling for recognition of Guaidó as interim president and new elections in Venezuela. Venezuela receives virtually no cash for oil shipments to either country, since they were already paid for in exchange for previous loans to the Maduro government.

Russian media reported Wednesday that the accounts of Venezuelan companies there would be transferred to the Russian Financial Corporation Bank. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to answer questions about the transfer, telling reporters that “the Kremlin directly does not handle issues relating to the creation of accounts and approvals with businesses.”

Speaking during a visit to Abu Dhabi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that his government has “neither the time nor willingness, to put it frankly, to follow all the arrogant and illegal remarks of Washington.” The new sanctions threat, he said, was “more evidence that American diplomacy is quickly losing the sense of and its ability to use diplomatic instruments.”

Lavrov said that he hoped the U.S. example would “not be contagious for others.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.