Experts Doubt US Will Block Venezuelan Oil Purchases

By Mark Browne | February 7, 2018 | 5:23pm EST
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on a seven-day Latin America tour, speaks to the press in Lima, Peru on February 5, 2018. (Photo: State Department)

Mexico City ( – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this week the U.S. was actively considering restricting Venezuelan oil purchases to force President Nicolas Maduro’s regime to hold free and fair elections, but some experts say they doubt the Trump administration will do so.

Halfway through a seven-day visit to the region, Tillerson said in Buenos Aires early this week that restricting both exports and imports of petroleum products with Venezuela “is something we continue to consider.”

“Not doing anything” to end the political and economic crisis in Venezuela, “is also asking the Venezuelan people to suffer for a much longer time,” Tillerson said during a joint press conference with his Argentinean counterpart.

He noted however that the administration is looking first at what effect oil restrictions would have on U.S. business interests and on other countries in the region.

In a speech in Texas before departing for Latin America, Tillerson called the Maduro regime “corrupt and hostile,” and said it “clings to a false dream and antiquated vision for the region that has already failed its citizens.”

“Venezuela boasts the world’s largest proven oil reserves, but riches are reserved only for the ruling elites,” he said. “As a consequence, the people suffer. Venezuelans are starving, looting is common, and the sick do not receive the medical attention they desperately need. Venezuelans are dying of malnutrition and disease.”

Tillerson pledged to “continue to pressure the regime to return to the democratic process that made Venezuela a great country in the past.”

Geoff Ramsey, assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, said the main obstacle to a U.S. oil embargo on Venezuela is the impact the restrictions would have on U.S. companies.

“This is an election year and I don’t think the White House is going to want to risk a huge spike in gas prices,” he said.

While restriction on oil sales “should be taken seriously,” Ramsay said he doubted anything would be done while there the Maduro regime and opposition leaders continue to hold talks in the Dominican Republic.

The worst path the Trump administration could take, he said, would be to turn U.S. opposition to the Maduro regime into a “one-on one conflict between the U.S. and Venezuela.”

That would allow the Maduro regime to justify itself as opposing an “imperial threat.”

According to Tillerson, Russia and China are the “imperial powers” threatening the region.

In his speech in Texas, Tillerson noted that China is “now the largest trading partner of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru.”

“While this trade has brought benefits, the unfair trading practices used by many Chinese have also harmed these countries’ manufacturing sectors, generating unemployment and lowering wages for workers.”

He also warned against “Russia’s growing presence in the region.”

“The United States stands in vivid contrast. We do not seek short-term deals with lopsided returns. We seek partners with shared values and visions to create a safe, secure, and prosperous hemisphere.”

Meanwhile Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray Caso used the opportunity of the secretary’s first official trip to Latin America to highlight positives in the relationship with the Trump administration.

“I think that in many ways, the relationship today is more fluid, it’s closer than it was with previous administrations – which might be surprising to some people, but that’s a fact of life,” he said during a joint press appearance in Mexico City with Tillerson and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Despite that assessment, Jorge Chabat, professor of international studies at the Center for Research and Teaching on Economics in Mexico City, argued that the Trump administration lacks “a sophisticated vision of Latin America.”

“I don’t see a global strategy in terms of the region,” he said. “I don’t see a particular vision in terms of what the U.S. will do in the region.”

Trump has “said strong things but the relationship really hasn’t changed that much,” said Chabat, adding that President Obama, too, “didn’t have a very clear policy towards the region.”

Chabat said he doubted the administration would actually restrict oil trade with Venezuela, since its “focus is on the prosperity of the U.S.”

He also argued that an oil embargo would make Venezuela’s economic crisis worse in the short term.


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