Buenos Aires (AFP) – The United States said Sunday it has not ruled out sanctions on Venezuelan oil as it turns the screw on President Nicolas Maduro, but is wary of hurting the country’s people.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Argentina during a tour of Latin America to bolster a common front against Venezuela’s bid to hold a presidential election that opponents deem illegitimate.
The top US diplomat has received support from other governments in the Americas, including on Sunday from his Argentine counterpart Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, but some are cautious about sanctions.
At a joint news conference, Tillerson — a former chief of oil giant ExxonMobil — confirmed the ultimate option of sanctioning Venezuela’s key oil sector is under consideration, but that Washington shares its allies’ concerns.
Oil-rich and once one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, Venezuela under Maduro faces economic collapse and widespread popular protest. The US, Canada and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions targeting Maduro loyalists seen as profiteers or human rights abusers.
Tillerson did not push back against the suggestion that sanctions on oil might also hurt US companies that have built refineries in the southern United States geared to accept Venezuelan crude.
“Obviously sanctioning oil or prohibiting the oil to be sold in the United States … is something we continue to consider,” Tillerson said, while acknowledging Faurie’s concerns.
“As the foreign minister indicated, our disagreements are with the Venezuelan regime not with the people, the Venezuelan people are suffering mightily in the current circumstances.”
Tillerson said oil sanctions could be deployed if it is decided that this would bring the crisis to a more rapid end “because not doing anything to bring this to an end is also asking the Venezuelan people to suffer for a much longer time.”
But he added that Washington was also looking at how to “mitigate the impact on US business interests.”
Faurie agreed with Tillerson that Maduro’s attempt to call an election on terms set by Venezuela’s non-elected Constituent Assembly was illegitimate and would be rejected by Argentina.
“As for the sales of oil and trade in oil that exist, that is particularly important, we should closely follow up on this to ensure appropriate balance between what the Venezuelan nation needs and what is being used by the leaders of the Venezuelan government,” he said.
Maduro shot back, in a video on Facebook, saying that Tillerson “has just threatened us with an oil boycott. Well, we are ready. Nothing and nobody is going to stop us.”
Tillerson is due to meet Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri on Monday before flying on to Peru and then Colombia, which has already received around half a million Venezuelan refugees.
He will then visit Jamaica for talks on how regional powers can replace the subsidized oil that Venezuela ships to Caribbean nations, in the event it is hit by sanctions or economic collapse.