February 7, 2020 / 3:35 PM / 20 days ago

UPDATE 3-Russia foreign minister slams U.S. sanctions during visit to Venezuela

(Adds U.S. sanction on Venezuelan airline)

By Brian Ellsworth and Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Russia’s foreign minister on Friday slammed U.S. sanctions against Venezuela during a visit to Caracas, providing a public show of support for President Nicolas Maduro as Washington mulls ramping up pressure on the South American nation.

Sergei Lavrov arrived in Caracas on Thursday, only hours after the State Department suggested its Venezuela sanctions program could begin targeting Russia, whose oil companies have helped Maduro by buying much of the OPEC nation’s crude.

Assistance from Russia could be decisive for Maduro to boost oil production and restore economic growth after a surprise opening of the economy last year that followed years of hyperinflation and the exodus of 5 million people.

“We consider sanctions to be unacceptable,” said Lavrov during a televised meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart, Jorge Arreaza, and other Venezuelan officials. “It is outrageous that unilateral actions by the United States affect social and humanitarian projects.”

He voiced support for a government-backed dialogue effort as an alternative to “uprisings and interventions.” Opposition leaders say Maduro uses dialogue proceedings as a stalling tactic.

Lavrov is expected to meet with Maduro later.

This week, U.S. President Donald Trump met at the White House with opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

On Thursday, U.S. Special Representative to Venezuela Elliott Abrams warned that Russia’s support for Maduro’s government may “no longer be cost free,” noting that companies that have licenses to work with Venezuela could lose them.

“The rules about sanctions can always change,” Abrams told reporters. “The licenses that are given can be withheld; those that are withheld can be given.”

On Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department said it sanctioned Venezuela state-run airline Conviasa, which it said was being used to “shuttle corrupt officials around the world.”

“The Trump administration will not allow Maduro and his proxies to continue stealing from the Venezuelan people and abusing state-owned assets to advance their own corrupt and destabilizing activities,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

It is not evident that Washington is prepared to sanction Russian oil companies due to the potential impact on crude markets.

Though the Trump administration has said it wants to starve Maduro’s government of export revenue, the sanctions include exceptions that allow companies such as U.S. oil producer Chevron to continue buying Venezuelan oil.

Amid the rhetorical bluster, Chevron and India’s Reliance have defended their business with Venezuela on the grounds that it has Washington’s approval. (Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Dan Grebler)

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