President Donald Trump increased pressure on Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro with an order prohibiting purchases of debts owed to the government, including to the crucial state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA.
“I have taken action to prevent the Maduro regime from conducting ‘fire sales,’ liquidating Venezuela’s critical assets—assets the country will need to rebuild its economy,” Trump said in a news release Monday afternoon. “This money belongs to the Venezuelan people.”
The order covers all transactions involving debts owed to the Venezuelan government or state-owned enterprises, including accounts receivable. It also prohibits the sale, transfer or pledging of collateral of any equity interest in which the Venezuelan government has a 50 percent or greater stake. The order was posted on the Treasury Department website Monday afternoon.
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Trump’s decision comes on the heels of Maduro’s victory Sunday in an election boycotted by the main opposition coalition and scorned by the international community. The order follows a first wave of restrictions last year that banned the purchase of new debt from the government, essentially choking off any potential restructuring with creditors as a way to apply pressure on Maduro to release political prisoners and hold free and fair elections.
But nations seeking to dislodge the socialist autocrat walk a fine line. The country is gripped by hyperinflation and hunger, teetering on the edge of failed-state status. The most powerful sanctions would be aimed directly at the state oil producer, but the heaviest blow might land on a population that’s already suffering.
Monday’s order drew the financial net only slightly tighter. Trump’s action “limits cash management transactions,” said Antonio de la Cruz, Executive Director at Inter American Trends, a think tank in Washington, and a former PDVSA planning manager. The decision also “curtails its capability to finance itself using its main U.S. subsidiary, Citgo Petroleum Corporation,” he said in a telephone interview.
Since November, Venezuela has skipped past payment deadlines on nearly $4 billion in bonds, raising concern among creditors about the $65 billion outstanding from the nation and its state-run entities. On Monday, trading in Venezuelan debt ground to a halt as investors and brokers sought clarity on the order.
One administration official said the action was intended to stop the Maduro regime from selling off debts owed to the government and state-owned enterprises in exchange for immediate cash.
The order may also prevent Maduro’s regime from selling off expected debt repayments from its Petrocaribe program, in which Caribbean and Central American nations buy oil from PDVSA on an installment plan. Countries in the program pay only a portion of the cost of Venezuelan oil upfront and finance the rest over 25 years at low interest rates. Nicaraguan companies alone, for example, owed Venezuela $3.2 billion under Petrocaribe as of 2016, according to Fitch Ratings.
Trump administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the order would close off avenues of corruption.
“The United States remains committed to the Venezuelan people, who have suffered immensely under the Maduro regime,” Trump said in his statement. “We call for the Maduro regime to restore democracy, hold free and fair elections, release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally, and end the repression and economic deprivation of the Venezuelan people.”