(Miami Herald, Jim Wyss and Nora Gamez Torres, 3.Dec.2019) — Washington continued to tighten its grip on Venezuela and Cuba on Tuesday, naming six oil tankers that deliver fuel from the South American nation to the island as “blocked property.” The action — just the latest in a series of sanctions — also suggests how far Venezuela and Cuba are willing to go to avoid what they see as an illegal blockade.
Among the ships that the U.S. Treasury Department identified was the Esperanza — flying under a Greek flag and belonging to Cuba’s Caroil Transport Marine Ltd. The U.S. government said the ship had previously been called the Nedas and had been declared blocked property in April.
“Cuba and the former Maduro regime continue trying to circumvent sanctions by changing the names of vessels and facilitating the movement of oil from Venezuela to Cuba,” Treasury Deputy Secretary Justin Muzinich said in a statement. “The United States will continue to take necessary action to protect the people of Venezuela.”
The U.S. Treasury also named as blocked property five additional oil tankers belonging to the Venezuelan state-run PDVSA oil company: Luisa Caceres de Arismendi, Manuela Saenz, Paramaconi, Terepaima and Yare. Those ships were among the fleet that made deliveries of Venezuelan fuel to Cuba in the fall of 2019.
Around that time, PDVSA invoiced Cubametales — the Cuban state-run import and export company that’s also under U.S. sanctions — for about 1.3 million barrels delivered earlier in the summer. The funds for those shipments were then transferred to a Russian bank account, the U.S. Treasury said.
The new sanctions come as Cuba suffers severe gasoline shortages amid mounting Washington sanctions.
In September, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel appeared on live TV to announce austerity measures due to oil shortages he blamed on U.S. sanctions. In an unusually detailed explanation, he said his government could not guarantee the island’s fuel supply.
“A ship carrying oil will arrive on the 14th. The next shipments will arrive at the end of September,” Díaz-Canel said. “We must maintain savings and efficiency measures so that this fuel lasts until the end of the month when other ships enter and stabilize the situation.”
The following month, he said the worst of the crisis had passed but did not elaborate.
“They are chasing us ship by ship. … We cannot be naive, and we have to protect ourselves,” Diaz-Canel said in reference to the mounting pressure from Washington.
The Treasury Department’s statement suggests the Trump administration was closely tracking Cuba-Venezuela trade and shipping routes.
Venezuela boasts the world’s largest oil reserves but has seen production cratering amid mismanagement and corruption. The Nicolás Maduro regime says U.S. economic sanctions — which began in earnest in 2017 — are to blame, but the industry’s woes began years earlier.
Shunned by many of its traditional trade partners, Cuba and Venezuela are increasingly dependent on each other. Maduro sends highly subsidized oil to Cuba in exchange, in part, for security and intelligence assistance, the U.S. government says.
“While the Venezuelan people continue to take to the streets to demand basic services and a return to freedom and prosperity, Maduro chooses to ship a vital natural resource to Cuba in exchange for Cuban security and intelligence services that preserve his influence in Venezuela,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “Cuba continues to prop up Nicolás Maduro, subverting the Venezuelan people’s right to self-determination and undermining Venezuelan institutions.”
Maduro has sent about $900 million in oil to Cuba this year despite the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told reporters last week.
Tuesday’s sanctions prohibit all U.S. citizens, residents, and even those in transit through the U.S., from engaging in transactions that involve blocked property.
Washington has sanctioned more than 100 current and former Venezuelan officials in recent years as it tries to drive Maduro out of power. The South American strongman has responded by cracking down on the opposition and warning the nation that Trump and his allies are plotting to topple him, using violence if necessary.
In addition to the sanctions, on Tuesday the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert advising Americans not to travel to Venezuela “due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, kidnapping, and arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens.”