Lawmakers divided over a ban on Venezuelan oil amid fears of a Russian takeover

In this Aug. 1, 2004, file photo, the sun sets behind an oil drilling rig near Cabimas, Venezuela. Congress is divided over a ban on Venezuelan oil imports ahead of a July 30 election that could dramatically alter the Venezuelan constitution.
In this Aug. 1, 2004, file photo, the sun sets behind an oil drilling rig near Cabimas, Venezuela. Congress is divided over a ban on Venezuelan oil imports ahead of a July 30 election that could dramatically alter the Venezuelan constitution. AP

In advance of a July 30 vote that could strip Venezuelan lawmakers of their constitutional power, Cuban-American politicians are going after Venezuela’s jugular: the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

Over the past few weeks, as the tough talk on Venezuela reaches a fever pitch, South Florida lawmakers are uniformly behind a ban on Venezuelan oil imports to the United States, a drastic step that could deal a critical blow to Venezuela’s slumping oil industry.

The lawmakers seem convinced that the White House will do something drastic, going beyond the long-used tactic of issuing sanctions on individual Venezuelan government officials suspected of money laundering and drug trafficking.

“We will have a swift and firm response from this administration,” Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said this week.

“If this happens on July 30, I am convinced without any doubt that the President of the United States will act swiftly and decisively to ensure that there will be measures taken against individuals and potentially sectors for the unconstitutional overthrow of democracy and the replacement with a Cuban-style regime,” Sen. Marco Rubio said on Wednesday.

Read more: As Venezuela teeters on constitutional crisis, Miami lawmakers warn of a new Cuba

For now, Congress is united in its disgust toward Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, but some lawmakers — even among Republicans — disagree over how far the U.S. should go if Maduro’s constituent assembly comes up for its scheduled vote.

The Cuban Americans favor a ban on Venezuelan oil imports, a far-reaching action that could further cripple an economy already mired in hyperinflation. But some leading foreign-policy voices in Congress, including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, have doubts.

“I believe there’s a crisis coming in Venezuela, and I think we need to be careful about not making ourselves the focus of that crisis,” Corker said. “Sometimes what we do unifies the chavistas.”

Corker, who is close to Trump, added that he plans to meet with Rubio soon to discuss possible sanctions.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who ran against Trump as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, echoes Corker’s concerns. Kaine said he was “pleased” with the Trump administration’s recent actions in Venezuela, but stopped short of endorsing oil sanctions.

“Before agreeing to sanctions on an industry sector, I would want to hear from the Administration how that would impact the Venezuelan people. Sanctions should be designed to punish and deter bad actors and minimize impact on suffering people,” Kaine, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement provided to the Miami Herald.

Venezuela exported 291 million barrels of oil and oil products to the United States in 2016. The United States buys nearly half of Venezuela’s oil, and oil revenues account for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings, according to OPEC.

In contrast, Venezuelan oil accounts for just 8 percent of U.S oil imports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Lawmakers are also worried about the potential for a Russian takeover of U.S.-based oil refiner Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., known as PDVSA.

Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft acquired a 49.9 percent stake in Citgo as collateral for a $1.5 billion loan signed in November 2016. If the Venezuelan government needs additional cash, they could hand over their oil assets, including the Houston-based Citgo, to the Russians.

“There’s already been one default on a loan from Russia to Venezuela,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a Cuban-American lawmaker who supports tough sanctions against Venezuela. “If in fact that default or any others is used by Rosneft to get the majority of shareholding of PDVSA, which owns Citgo and all of its infrastructure in the United States, we could have an extensive energy infrastructure here in the United States owned by the Russian government. I think we can all agree that the last thing we need to do is open the doors of our critical infrastructure to Russian interference.”

But the takeover could violate existing U.S. sanctions on Rosneft put in place in 2014 as a way to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine, potentially threatening Russian ownership of Citgo and PDVSA if the Russians acquire a majority stake.

Reuters reported Thursday that Rosneft is negotiating a swap of its collateral in Citgo in exchange for oilfield stakes and fuel supplies as a way to wiggle out of existing U.S. sanctions. Citgo’s U.S. energy assets include three oil refineries, nine pipelines and dozens of petroleum platforms.

Other top Venezuelan opposition leaders, including Carlos Vecchio, the political coordinator of the Voluntad Popular party led by Leopoldo López, are wary of sweeping U.S. oil sanctions being used as a rhetorical tool against the United States by the Maduro regime.

“If there is an oil embargo, we would be giving Maduro an argument to say that the crisis is all U.S. imperialism’s fault,” Vecchio told the Miami Herald.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat who was close with former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez but is against Maduro, said Trump should take multilateral action in conjunction with Venezuela’s neighbors and the Organization of American States.

If the OAS and countries such as Colombia aren’t behind an oil-import ban, the U.S. shouldn’t act alone, Meeks said.

“I hope that the president is … speaking with all of Venezuela’s neighbors because that is tremendously important,” Meeks said.

But Rubio and other lawmakers argue that average Venezuelans are already suffering immensely from hyperinflation, and oil industry workers who aren’t getting paid won’t switch from protesting Maduro to protesting the United States because of sanctions.

“I believe we have strong bipartisan regional and international support for those measures and I would suspect that numerous countries will join us in that regard,” Rubio said.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty