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U.S. blocks Venezuela bid to seek WTO review of sanctions

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States on Friday blocked Venezuela from proceeding with its dispute over Washington’s sanctions at the World Trade Organization, seizing on the issue to underscore its rejection of Nicolas Maduro as the country’s legitimate president.

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Venezuela had planned to request the formation of a WTO panel to rule on whether sanctions the United States imposed in 2018 and 2019 breached global trading rules.

The United States asked for the request to be removed, which Venezuela refused to do, prompting the trade body to suspend a meeting about this and other trade matters at the start, a Geneva-based trade official said.

U.S. Trade Representative spokesman Adam Hodge said the panel request was illegitimate because the Maduro administration did not speak on behalf of the Venezuelan people.

“The United States will reject any effort by Maduro to misuse the WTO to attack U.S. sanctions aimed at restoring human rights and democracy to Venezuela,” he said in a statement.

The U.S. action was intended to make clear that President Joe Biden and his administration would continue its hard-line stance against Maduro and seek to pressure him to hold free and fair elections, a senior U.S. official said.

“Were the United States and other members to allow representatives of the illegitimate Maduro regime to exercise rights at the WTO on behalf of Venezuela, it would be tantamount to recognizing the Maduro regime itself,” the official said. “This would be contrary to the Biden-Harris administration’s firm policy supporting the people of Venezuela.”

Biden’s administration is continuing to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president. Dozens of countries have backed Guaido’s claim following Maduro’s re-election in 2018 in a vote Western governments called a sham.

The White House last month said it was in “no rush” to lift U.S. sanctions on Venezuela but would consider easing them if Maduro took confidence-building steps showing he is ready to negotiate seriously with the opposition.

Venezuela blames Washington’s sanctions - which it refers to as “unilateral coercive measures” - for the South American country’s economic woes.

“Sooner rather than later Venezuela will defeat with the law what the United States seeks to impose with force,” Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Twitter on Friday.

The Biden administration this month also granted temporary protected status to Venezuelan migrants living in the United States, making good Biden’s promise during the 2020 election campaign to give shelter to those who fled economic collapse and political turmoil under Maduro.

The Geneva-based official said Peru, Brazil and Colombia supported the U.S. position, while Cuba and Russia said Venezuela had the right to submit its request.

Friday’s events put the WTO in a difficult spot, given that the meeting’s suspension also puts on hold other disputes and a request from more than 100 countries to re-establish the WTO’s body that rules on appeals in disputes.

The United States under President Donald Trump blocked appointments to the WTO’s Appellate Body, leaving it with too few members to hear cases.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Editing by Mark Potter and Jonathan Oatis

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