The US administration today imposed sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned National Development Bank (Bandes) and other financial institutions to protest the arrest yesterday of a top aide to Juan Guaidó, whom Washington recognizes as the country's interim leader.
Venezuelan National Assembly speaker Guaidó's chief of staff Robert Marrero was taken into custody by Venezuelan intelligence service agents in Caracas. Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro retains control of the government's security and military forces, despite Washington's efforts to remove him from power by oil and financial sanctions. US officials and lawmakers reacted strongly to Marrero's detention, in part out of concern that it may presage a similar fate for Guaidó.
"The regime's continued use of kidnapping, torture, and murder of Venezuelan citizens will not be tolerated by the US or the international coalition that is united behind President Guaido," US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said. "Roberto Marrero and other political prisoners must be released immediately."
Maduro last year ordered Bandes to approve hard currency loans meant to "protect" local industries affected by new government price control mechanisms. Treasury said today that Maduro in January attempted to transfer $1bn out of Venezuela via Bandes to its Uruguay-based subsidiary Banco Bandes Uruguay.
In addition to Bandes and its Uruguyan subsidiary, the Treasury also imposed sanctions on banks in Venezuela and Bolivia where Bandes is a major shareholder.
Uruguay along with Mexico is promoting a political dialogue in Venezuela, an approach backed by Maduro and rejected by the Lima Group of mostly Latin American countries that are seeking to isolate Maduro with diplomatic and political measures. Bolivia is a close political ally of Caracas.
The banks targeted by sanctions include Venezuela-based Banco de Venezuela and Banco Bicentenario del Pueblo and Bolivia-based Banco Prodem. Treasury has given those banks' US counterparts until 21 May to wind down business with those banks, carving out exemptions for maintenance of US citizens' accounts and provision of credit card services by major providers, until 22 March 2020.
The State Department separately expressed concerns over the safety of US citizens detained in Venezuela in recent years, including former top executives of state-owned PdV's US refining subsidiary Citgo.
The US already has removed its diplomatic and consular staff from Caracas and has not yet designated a third country to protect US citizens and the embassy in Venezuela. The State Department cited "reports of Venezuelan prison officials preventing attorneys and families of detained US citizens from delivering food and denying routine communication" and vowed to "hold Maduro and his prison officials to account for their safety and well-being." It said that six former Citgo executives have gone more than a year without a scheduled hearing. The Maduro government had denied the US access to them even before the departure of US diplomats, as the executives hold dual US and Venezuelan citizenship.
The US policy of sanctions and pledges of humanitarian aid delivery have not succeeded so far in loosening Maduro's hold on power, as he retains the support of senior military commanders and paramilitary groups.
The prospect of US military intervention against the Maduro government already looks hypothetical. The administration has said it would impose even more stringent sanctions on Venezuela's oil sector if Maduro does not step down.
Sanctions already in place give US refiners until 28 April to wind down imports and immediately cut exports of diluents required to keep a large chunk of Venezuelan exports flowing. It requires those refiners that still take cargoes to deposit payments in escrow accounts off limits to Maduro's government. US oil field service companies have until 27 July to exit Venezuela.
US imports of Venezuelan crude fell to zero for the first time in the week to 15 March, after averaging 134,000 b/d in three weeks to 8 March, according to preliminary weekly Energy Information Administration data.