(Adds context from White House official)
By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON, April 2 (Reuters) - Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the United States would continue to pressure Venezuela’s oil industry and those who support it with economic sanctions, citing world oil prices as low enough to allow for the measures.
Oil prices hit their highest point since November on Tuesday, with Brent crude approaching $70 a barrel, based in part on fears that U.S. sanctions against OPEC members Iran and Venezuela would result in a cut to global supplies.
“We recognize the importance of energy to the United States,” Pence told reporters. “But the price of oil around the world has been quite low for some time, quite competitive for some time, and we’re just going to continue to stand firm and bring even more pressure on this regime,” he said.
A White House official said while oil prices have crept up from historic lows recently, prices are still under last year’s highs.
Pence’s comments stood in contrast to concerns that President Donald Trump has voiced about oil prices. As recently as last week, Trump called for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to boost production, saying on Twitter that the price of oil was “getting too high.”
Pence, who is helping lead the White House campaign to dislodge Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from power, made his remarks in a meeting with family members of six executives jailed in Venezuela since 2017. The executives worked for Citgo Petroleum, the U.S. refinery division of Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA.
The United States and most other Western countries have backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president in January, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 reelection was illegitimate. Maduro has called Guaido a puppet of the United States.
The United States slapped stiff sanctions on PDVSA in January, aimed at cutting Maduro’s government off from oil revenues.
Trump is considering expanding the measures with sanctions on foreign companies that do business with Venezuela, his national security adviser John Bolton said on Friday.
“We’re going to continue to bring pressure on the oil industry. We’re going to continue to bring pressure on countries in this hemisphere who are supporting the dictatorship in Venezuela,” Pence said.
Pence also said the Trump administration was considering new measures to punish Cuba, which has close ties with Maduro.
“We’re looking at strong action against Cuba which continues to provide personnel and support for the dictatorship in Venezuela,” he said.
Pence expressed sympathy to the family members of the six Citgo executives - five U.S. citizens and one legal permanent resident - who were arrested in Caracas during corporate meetings and accused of embezzlement and money laundering.
Pence said the men had been “illegally detained” and that 16 court hearings had been canceled as the men languished in basement cells without enough food or medical treatment. He said the Trump administration was working for the prisoners’ release.
“We are just worried for their life and we just want them home as soon as possible,” said Carlos Anez, who told Pence his father had worked for Citgo for more than 20 years before he was detained. (Reporting by Roberta Rampton; editing by Lisa Shumaker and Marguerita Choy)