April 5, 2019 / 10:09 PM / 2 months ago

UPDATE 1-U.S. ratchets up pressure on Venezuela, Cuban backers

(Recasts throughout, details from speech and Treasury statement, reaction)

By Collin Eaton

HOUSTON, April 5 (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Friday stepped up efforts to force Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from office by imposing new sanctions on its oil shipments, and promising "stronger action" against Cuba for helping to keep the regime afloat.

Greater efforts to prevent oil revenues from reaching Maduro, including sanctions on Venezuela's finance and oil sectors, were coming, Pence said in Houston before a hand-picked audience of 300 people, many from the local Venezuelan community who support Maduro's ouster.

"The United States will continue to exert all diplomatic and economic pressure to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy" in Venezuela, Pence said at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, calling oil shipments "the lifeblood of that corrupt regime."

The United States and leaders of most nations in the Western Hemisphere consider Maduro's 2018 reelection illegitimate and have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the company's interim president. Maduro dismisses Guaido as a U.S. puppet.

After Pence's speech, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions on 34 vessels owned or operated by Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA that carry oil to customers outside the region. It also sanctioned two shipping operators and a vessel that delivered oil to Cuba in February and March.

Pence bashed the island nation's leaders as the "real imperialists" in the Western Hemisphere, adding: "The time has come to liberate Venezuela from Cuba."

An estimated 50,000 Venezuelans, the second-largest expatriate community outside of south Florida, live in Houston. Many of them support U.S. efforts to rid Venezuela of Maduro, having fled the socialist politics of former leader Hugo Chavez for a home in Houston's energy industry.

However, some Venezuelan expatriates in Houston believe tougher actions than Pence's proposals on Friday were needed to replace the government.

"It’s going to take more than economic sanctions,” said Andres Carvallo, a former Venezuelan lawyer and journalist who attended the speech. In addition to sanctions, the United States should organize a military coalition of countries to remove the current government, he said.

Francisco Monaldi, a Venezuelan native and Latin American energy expert at Rice, said many expatriates had hoped that Pence would deliver a plan to get the Venezuelan military to stop supporting Maduro.

“It doesn’t seem the military is willing to remove support from Maduro,” which has proven more difficult than opposition leaders had expected.

"We want to see more than barking. We want to see action," said Miguel Eljuri, a Venezuelan living in Houston who also once worked for PDVSA.

Maria Gonzalez, an economist who listened to the speech, welcomed tougher action, adding her mother in Venezuela lacks water, power and basic supplies. As for the Trump administration's reversal of the U.S. opening to Cuba, she said: "they do not deserve our help." (Reporting by Collin Eaton in Houston; editing by Gary McWilliams and Marguerita Choy)

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