US threatens to reimpose sanctions on Venezuelan oil sector

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US threatens to reimpose sanctions on Venezuelan oil sector

The US has threatened to reinstate sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector, days after the South American country’s top court upheld a ban on opposition candidate María Corina Machado.

Ms Machado won a primary to become the opposition’s unity candidate for the 2024 presidential election.

But on Friday, Venezuela’s Supreme Court confirmed a 15-year ban on Ms Machado running for public office.

Venezuela rejected the US warning as “rude and improper blackmail”.

The oil industry is crucial to Venezuela’s economy.

The US imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector after President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for a second term in 2019, after an election widely dismissed as neither free not fair.

The US loosened those sanctions in October after the Maduro government reached a deal with the opposition, laying some of the groundwork for free and fair presidential elections to be held in the second half of 2024.

Shortly after the deal was reached in Barbados, the US Treasury issued a licence temporarily allowing transactions involving Venezuela’s oil and gas sector.

But it stressed at the time that the licence would only be renewed if Venezuela “met its commitments under the electoral roadmap”, which included lifting the bans imposed on María Corina Machado and a number of other opposition candidates.

The oil exemption is due to expire on 18 April and on Tuesday the US state department announced it would not renew it unless “political progress” was made between the Maduro government and the opposition “particularly on allowing all presidential candidates to compete in this year’s election”.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodríguez rejected the “ultimatum” from the US government as “blackmail”.

She threatened to immediately halt deportation flights for Venezuelan migrants who are in the US illegally if the “economic aggression” intensified.

The US had earlier announced that it would also reinstate sanctions on Venezuela’s state-run gold mining company – another source of foreign currency for the Maduro government.

Ms Machado’s overwhelming victory in October’s opposition’s primary – she received more than 90% of the votes – has instilled Venezuelans who want to see a change of government with hope that she can become president – if the election is free and fair.

As part of the Barbados deal, the Maduro government agreed to allow international observers to monitor the election.

But the fact that the Supreme Court – dominated by Maduro loyalists – has upheld the ban on Ms Machado has prompted many, including Ms Machado herself, to conclude that the Barbados deal is “dead”.

Ms Machado has promised to stand firm, insisting that she has been given a mandate in the primary which she said she would fulfil: “We are going to win and they must prepare to lose… They cannot hold elections without me.”

Jorge Rodríguez, a close ally of Mr Maduro who represented the government at the Barbados talks, insisted that the government had upheld its end of the bargain: “Those who wanted to appeal appealed and also pledged to respect the outcome.”