Rex Tillerson is talking about drastic action against one of the world's biggest oil producers -- again

  • Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested again the US could take action against Venezuela’s oil industry.
  • Sanctioning oil would be a drastic move, and it is the latest hint by the US that it could further crack down on Venezuela.
  • Other countries in the region have been wary of US moves, and Tillerson’s latest remarks drew rebuke in Venezuela.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson again mentioned drastic action against the Venezuelan government this weekend, saying the US is considering restrictions on oil imports and exports to the South American country.

“Obviously, sanctioning the oil or in effect prohibiting the oil to be sold in the United States, or for the United States as well to sell or provide oil to Venezuela, or refined products, is something we continue to consider,” Tillerson said on Sunday in Argentina.

Calling the situation in Venezuela “quite dire,” Tillerson added that the costs of imposing such sanctions needed to be balanced against the need to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves and has long been a major supplier to the US, though its crude-oil sales to the US in 2017 were the lowest since 1991, according to Reuters, as it struggles under US financial sanctions and ongoing turmoil in its oil industry.

“One of the aspects of considering sanctioning oil is what effect will it have on the Venezuelan people, and is it a step that might bring this … to a more rapid end?” Tillerson said in Buenos Aires. “Because not doing anything to bring this to an end is also asking the Venezuelan people to suffer for a much longer time.”

“We are looking at options and we are looking at how to mitigate the impacts on US business interests” and on other countries in the region, the secretary of state said.

Tillerson’s counterpart, Argentine Foreign Minister Gorge Faurie, said it was “particularly important” to look at oil sales and the oil trade in relation to Venezuela.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri has already urged President Donald Trump to take action, saying in November he thought “a full oil embargo” was necessary to address what had become a “really a painful situation.”

International criticism against Maduro’s government has mounted since the pro-government constitutional assembly announced that the presidential election would be moved up to April, under timing and conditions that critics have said will benefit Maduro.

Tillerson said the US wants “free, fair, and verifiable elections” in Venezuela and emphasised the narrow focus of US pressure.

“Our disagreements are with the Venezuelan regime, not the Venezuelan people,” Tillerson said. “And the Venezuelan people are suffering mightily under the current circumstance.”

Maduro, for his part, swiftly rebuked the US.

“Rex Tillerson visiting Argentina just threatened us with a oil embargo,” Maduro said on Facebook. “We are prepared, Venezuela. Workers of the oil industry, we are threatened by imperialism” he added. “We are prepared to be free and nothing and no one is going to stop us.”

The Cuban government, a close ally of Caracas, echoed Maduro’s remarks, saying it rejected and condemned “alarming, interfering, and unacceptable” declarations about Venezuela by Tillerson.

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said that it saw the secretary of state’s remarks as an effort to “instigate openly an overthrow, by any means,” of the Venezuelan government, likely alluding to Tillerson’s remarks last week about the potential for the Venezuelan military to oust Maduro – a comment that came months after Trump said the US could take military action.

US officials, including Trump, have floated the possibility of oil sanctions on Venezuela, but such measures have been criticised as likely to have an outsize effect on people in Venezuela, which gets roughly 95% of its export revenue from oil.

Experts and analysts have also warned that such sanctions could have negative effects on the US oil industry and consumers.

“One thing working in the Trump administration’s favour is that Venezuela’s inability to produce has decreased the amount of Venezuelan oil that the US consumes,” Greg Weeks, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, wrote on Monday. “The question is whether the US can find alternatives ahead of time that counterbalance the loss” of Venezuelan oil under potential sanctions.

“I assume the administration will not pursue this policy if it means gas prices go up, especially when the midterm elections are dicey already,” Weeks added. “This will be a tricky game to play given its impact on US domestic politics.”

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