The U.S. is actively considering new sanctions against Venezuelan officials, including those involved in the state oil company, PDVSA, the top U.S. diplomat responsible for South America, Michael Fitzpatrick, told Univision News on Monday.
"There are lots of lists and lots of decisions still to be made," he said in a Facebook Live interview on Friday in Miami. “We have actually begun some individual actions directly related to the use of PDVSA to steal hundreds of millions of dollars that belong to the people of Venezuela,” he added.
Fitzpatrick reiterated U.S. opposition to elections this Sunday for a constituent assembly in Venezuela describing the vote as a “blatantly illegal” effort to ”overthrow the constitution.” The election is being boycotted by the country's opposition parties who say it is an unconstitutional move designed to shut down the current National Assembly which they control.
The election is taking place in the midst of an dire economic crisis and months of almost daily anti-government street protests that have resulted in more than 100 deaths.
On Wednesday the U.S. announced sanctions to seize the U.S. assets of 13 current and former senior Venezuelan officials, as well as denying them - and their families - visas to enter the United States.
No decision yet
President Donald Trump was still seeking advice and no decision had yet been made about what further steps would be taken, Fitzpatrick said.
"I don’t believe he’s made a final determination of what sort of sanctions or when, or how to roll them out," he said.
Many Venezuelans worry that an oil embargo could cause even great economic distress on Venezuelan households due to the country's heavy dependence on oil for imported goods, including food. Oil accounts for 90 percent of the country's foreign income.
Fitzpatrick declined to offer specifics but hinted that a total oil embargo might not be in the cards.
"It doesn’t necessarily have to be absolute, total sectoral sanction. There are many different ways of looking at it, or slicing the issue,” he said.
U.S. refiners are already shifting away from processing Venezuela's heavy crude, lessening the potential impact on their businesses and motorists of any supply disruptions from Venezuela as the Trump administration considers new sanctions, Reuters reported Friday.
But the threat of sanctions so far has not had any effect. On Wednesday Maduro thumbed his nose at the United States, congratulating the 13 sanctioned officials, as if being singled out by Washington was a badge of honor. "What makes the imperialists of the United States think they are the world government?" he told a rally.
El Aissami case
Despite the lack of success in persuading Maduro to call off the elections, Individual sanctions were a useful dissuasive tool, Fitzpatrick insisted. He noted that the U.S. had so far identified $500 million in frozen U.S. assets belonging to Venezuela's Vice President Tarek El Aissami.
That included luxury homes and cars as well as "hidden assets in different elements of the banking system." Much of that was found in "offshore accounts wrapped in some sort of legal package, wrapped in another offshore account in another country that ultimately ends up in a U.S. bank account.”
He added: "the question is what does he have overseas? If he was willing to expose that much to risk in the United States directly, how much does he, and others, have offshore.”
However, Fitzpatrick conceded that the U.S. saw no sign of Maduro backing down.
The Venezuelan president “seems to be like a bulldog with a bone I his mouth and is just not going to let go," he said. "That really is the question. He refuses to let go of power, he refuses to share power, he refuses to respect the separation of powers."
Instead of going ahead with the election, Maduro should "be thinking about a transition … the effect of Sunday is only going to further polarize the country,” Fitzpatrick added.