May 7, 2018 / 6:28 PM / 6 months ago

UPDATE 5-U.S. sanctions three Venezuelans, Pence calls for more action

(Adds details from Pence speech, Venezuelan reaction)

By Roberta Rampton and Alexandra Ulmer

WASHINGTON/CARACAS, May 7 (Reuters) - The United States on Monday sanctioned three Venezuelans and 20 companies with ties to socialist President Nicolas Maduro for narcotics trafficking activity, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called for more nations to increase pressure on Caracas.

The new sanctions continue a pattern of stepped-up U.S. measures on individuals connected to Maduro, who is blamed by President Donald Trump’s administration for a deep recession and hyperinflation in OPEC member Venezuela that has caused food shortages and sent a flood of migrants into neighboring countries.

The individuals sanctioned on Monday are fairly low-profile and are unlikely to create major economic hardship.

Trump has so far opted not to impose new oil-related sanctions that it has considered for a Venezuelan oil services company and on insurance coverage for tankers carrying Venezuelan oil, though the measures are still under consideration, one administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Pence told the 35-nation Organization of American States - which includes Venezuela as a member - that they needed to take greater steps to isolate Maduro.

“We believe it is time to do more, much more,” Pence said in an address to the OAS. “Every free nation gathered here must take stronger action to stand with the Venezuelan people and stand up to their oppressors.”

Pence said the OAS should suspend Venezuela’s membership, and urged other members to cut off the nation’s leaders from financial systems and restrict them from travel visas.

He also called on Maduro to suspend the May 20 elections, saying he expected voter intimidation and manipulation of data. “There will be no real election in Venezuela on May 20, and the world knows it,” Pence said.

The suggestion was immediately rejected by Caracas. “There is zero possibility that elections will be suspended,” said Samuel Moncada, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, condemning Pence’s speech.

Maduro, himself subject to sanctions last year, regularly laughs off Washington’s disapproval and blames the U.S. “empire” for his country’s economic woes, saying it is trying to undermine his administration.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Of the newly sanctioned companies, 16 are based in Venezuela and four in Panama. They are owned or controlled by the three individuals, the U.S. Treasury said in a statement.

Oil prices rose to their highest levels since late 2014 on Monday, boosted by fresh troubles for Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA and a looming decision on whether the United States will reimpose sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

U.S. oil major ConocoPhillips has moved to take Caribbean assets of PDVSA to enforce a $2 billion arbitration award, three sources told Reuters. The move could deal a further blow to the company’s declining oil output and exports. (Reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O’Brien)

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