CARACAS (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday temporarily blocked a creditor seizure of Citgo, a win for political leaders in Venezuela struggling to retain control over the U.S. refiner owned by the chaotic South American nation.
Shares in Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, were used as collateral for a bond issue expected to go into default next week when a $913 million payment comes due.
But the U.S. Treasury Department, which maintains a broad sanctions program against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, said no transfers or sales of Citgo shares linked to the PDVSA bond could take place until Jan. 22.
“Transactions related to the sale or transfer of CITGO shares in connection with the PdVSA 2020 8.5 percent bond are prohibited, unless specifically authorized by OFAC,” the Treasury said, referring to its Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The decision appeared to be more of a short-term workaround than a permanent move by the Trump administration to keep Citgo out of creditor hands, as allies of opposition leader Juan Guaido have repeatedly sought.
U.S. officials have shown some reluctance to intervene in the matter, due to concerns it would constitute government interference in private transactions.
Venezuela’s information ministry and PDVSA, with an ad hoc board named by Guaido to oversee foreign holdings, did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
Citgo spokeswoman Katherine Bosley said it was “gratified by the U.S. Treasury Department’s decision.”
Maduro lost control of Citgo this year when Washington disavowed his government and recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state.
Guaido, on Twitter, thanked the U.S. government for its “confidence in our management,” adding that his team were “managing to maintain the assets the regime had sacked.”
Venezuela has defaulted on its foreign debt amid a broad economic collapse under Maduro, who still controls the day-to-day operations of the government and PDVSA. Washington has imposed a sweeping sanctions program against his government in efforts to force him from office, after a 2018 re-election widely denounced as fraudulent.
The Treasury appeared to suggest Guaido's allies and investors holding PDVSA 2020 bonds VE151299784= should use the next 90 days to reach a negotiated agreement.
“To the extent an agreement may be reached on proposals to restructure or refinance payments due to the (bond) holders ... additional licensing requirements may apply,” it wrote.
Guaido allies celebrated the decision, after recently asking investors for a 90-day truce to avoid a seizure while also threatening a lawsuit to declare the bond illegitimate.
But experts say there are few clear avenues for Guaido to strike a deal with investors because his allies do not control oil revenue and cannot offer future access to oil fields, which are controlled by Maduro.
U.S. fund manager T. Rowe Price held informal talks with Guaido advisers about financing the $913 million payment on PDVSA’s 2020 bond, an executive told Reuters, but added that the plan would only work if Washington altered sanctions on Venezuela.
The executive asked not to be named, citing the private nature of the talks.
An official with T. Rowe Price was unavailable to comment, a spokesman for the fund manager said.
Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Mexico City, Gary McWilliams in Houston and Mayela Armas in Caracas; Editing by Richard Chang, Tom Brown and Sandra Maler
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