WASHINGTON/CARACAS (Reuters) - The Trump administration is preparing new sanctions on Cuba over its support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and is taking a “closer look” at Russia’s role in helping him remain in power, the U.S. special envoy on Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told Reuters.
President Donald Trump’s frustration over the failure of his “maximum pressure” campaign to unseat Maduro has spurred foreign policy aides to ready further U.S. actions and press for tougher sanctions on OPEC member Venezuela by European and Latin American partners, a second senior administration official said on condition of anonymity.
Abrams said Washington sees Cuba and Russia providing a lifeline to Maduro, nine months after the Trump administration and dozens of other countries resolved to no longer recognize the socialist leader as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
“We’re always looking to ways to squeeze (Cuba) because we do not see any improvement in their conduct either with respect to Venezuela or human rights internally,” Abrams said in an interview in his State Department office.
The new sanctions under consideration for communist Cuba, expected “in the weeks ahead,” would likely target the island’s tourism sector as well as Venezuela’s cut-rate oil delivered to Havana, building on the U.S. blacklisting of tankers used to transport the supplies, the senior official said.
While U.S. sanctions on Cuba stem from accusations that it provides training, arms and intelligence to Maduro’s security forces, targeting Russia would be based heavily on Moscow’s financial support of Caracas. Oil giant Rosneft (ROSN.MM) has helped Venezuela market its crude since Washington imposed sanctions on state oil company PDVSA in January.
Asked whether Washington is preparing sanctions against Rosneft, Abrams said the administration was “taking a closer look at the ways in which Russia is sustaining the regime” but declined to specify any entities or individuals.
In early August, the Trump administration froze U.S. assets of the Venezuelan government and threatened “secondary sanctions” on any company doing business with it, an escalation of pressure on Maduro. The move was widely seen as opening the door to putting sanctions on Rosneft, which in recent months has taken around half of Venezuela’s crude exports.
Abrams said the administration now intended to start “naming names” under Trump’s August order and that new individual sanctions are expected over the next three months.
But U.S. officials are mindful of the need for caution in targeting a company as large and far-reaching as Rosneft over its Venezuela ties.
“We don’t have the luxury of being haphazard,” the senior administration official told Reuters, stressing that they were not specifically referring to Rosneft.
“If it was a company that was solely doing business in Venezuela, that’s a slam dunk. But when you deal with entities that have multiple components, we have to be thorough.”
At the same time, the Trump administration recognizes the risk of adding tensions to an already-troubled U.S.-Russia relationship at a time when the countries face geopolitical disagreements over issues like Syria, Ukraine and arms control.
With some critics saying the economic weapons at the Trump administration’s disposal are dwindling, it remains unclear whether the remaining options will be enough to shift the balance of power in Venezuela.
Maduro retains the loyalty of the country’s military despite opposition leader Juan Guaido’s efforts to get them on his side after he invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a fraud. Guaido leads the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
Further restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba would be aimed at squeezing the island economically and expanding Trump’s steady rollback of the historic opening to Cuba by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. The reversal, along with his pressure on Venezuela, has gone over well among Cuban Americans in South Florida, a key voting bloc in Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
The senior administration official insisted Trump’s growing impatience with the failure of sanctions and diplomatic pressure to push Maduro from power meant he would not ease up despite the president’s decision last month to fire his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, who was widely identified with the hardline policy on Venezuela.
The official said that before the administration stepped up pressure in January as Guaido assumed the rival presidency, the process had been hampered by two years of “slow-walking” by other government agencies that preferred an incremental approach.
“That’s the frustration that the president harbored - he’d been saying for two years, ‘Why aren’t we doing more?’,” the official said.
However, a former senior U.S. official said the administration underestimated the complexities of the Venezuelan situation, especially the difficulty of spurring a mutiny in the ranks where many officers are suspected of benefiting from corruption and drug trafficking.
Asked whether Venezuela policy would change with Bolton’s departure, Abrams said: “The policy of supporting Guaido, supporting the National Assembly, pushing for a return of democracy, is not going to change.”
Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman