By Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s special representative for Venezuela pledged on Thursday that Washington would “expand the net” of sanctions on the South American nation, including more on banks supporting President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
“There will be more sanctions on financial institutions that are carrying out the orders of the Maduro regime,” Elliott Abrams told a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing.
The United States and dozens of other countries have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as oil-rich Venezuela’s interim president and increased pressure on Maduro, a socialist, to step down.
Washington this week revoked the U.S. visas of senior Venezuelan officials and said on Wednesday it had identified efforts by Maduro to work with foreign banks to move and hide money.
Abrams, a neoconservative who has long advocated an activist U.S. role in the world, said he had been asking European banks to take steps to shield individual Venezuelans’ assets from Maduro’s government. He did not name the banks.
Some lawmakers pressed Abrams, who was appointed to his current position in January, about granting temporary protected status (TPS) for more than 70,000 Venezuelans in the United States.
More than three million people are believed to have fled Venezuela in recent years amid a deep economic crisis marked by widespread shortages of food and medicine as well as hyperinflation.
Senator Marco Rubio, Republican chairman of the Senate’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee, which held the hearing, warned that the flight of millions of Venezuelans could threaten regional stability.
“This has the potential to be a regional catastrophe of epic proportions,” Rubio, who has worked closely with Trump on the administration’s Venezuela policy, told the hearing.
Maduro, who took over as president in 2013 and was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, blames the crisis on a U.S.-backed sabotage campaign. His opponents say his socialist policies have caused the meltdown.
Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who wrote legislation calling for TPS, said: “The Venezuelan diaspora is fantastic, they’re incredible. All the more reason to give them TPS.”
Abrams said TPS was under consideration and he would discuss it with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. There are 74,000 Venezuelans who have applied for asylum in the United States, Abrams added.
He accused Russia and Cuba of shielding Maduro, who Abrams said was protected by “thousands and thousands” of Cuban military and intelligence officials while Moscow has supplied tens of millions of dollars to the government.
Abrams confirmed media reports he had had at least two rounds of secret talks with Maduro’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza.
Mark Green, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the Venezuelan economy had contracted by 50 percent and estimates were it could contract by another one-third this year, leading to a “profound collapse.”
“When you have inflation by some estimates 2 million percent, nobody has the ability to buy anything anyway, so there will be profound despair and hopelessness,” Green testified in the hearing.
Abrams said the World Bank and International Monetary Fund had plans involving “billions of dollars” of funding to rebuild the economy after Maduro was no longer in charge of Venezuela.
He added that Venezuela was “not fundamentally a bankrupt country” and that there would be “lots of people who are ready to invest” if there was a change in its leadership and economic policy.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Paul Simao)