The Biden administration will allow a six-month suspension of energy-related sanctions to expire in April if Maria Corina Machado and other opposition figures are not allowed to compete against President Nicolas Maduro, the official said on condition of anonymity.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Friday upheld a ban barring Machado from registering for elections scheduled for the second half of this year, with the court saying she supported U.S. sanctions, had been involved in corruption and had lost money associated with Venezuela’s foreign assets.
The United States had conditioned a continuation of sanctions relief for OPEC member Venezuela – granted in October as part of an electoral deal signed in Barbados – on Maduro freeing prisoners including “wrongfully detained” Americans, and making progress toward removing bans on a number of opposition figures.
Venezuela in December released 24 of its own citizens and 10 Americans in exchange for freedom for a Maduro official and the extradition of a Malaysian businessman wanted by the U.S.
But the court decision against Machado plus recent new arrests of opposition members has prompted the U.S. to threaten the restoration of sanctions.
“Unless Maduro and his representatives in Venezuela are able to get back on track, specifically with regard to allowing all presidential candidates to compete in this year’s election, we will not be in a position to renew General License 44, which provides relief to Venezuela’s oil and gas sector when it comes up for renewal in April,” the White House official said.
The official said the U.S. was also considering additional unspecified measures to punish the Venezuelan government.
The Venezuelan communications ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment,
“A lot’s gonna depend here on what Maduro and his regime do,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told a regular briefing. “They’ve got till the spring to honor their commitments… They’ve got decisions they have to make before we weigh what decisions we’ll take.”
In the most significant lifting of tough Trump-era sanctions, Washington in October issued a six-month general license authorizing U.S. transactions with Venezuela’s vital oil and gas sector and a second license authorizing operations of state gold mining company Minerven. It also removed a U.S. prohibition on secondary-market trading of Venezuelan sovereign bonds.
Machado, a 56-year-old industrial engineer who overwhelmingly won an October opposition primary vote, said on Monday she would not move aside in favor of a substitute despite the court decision.
“There is no retreat. We have a mandate and we will complete it,” Machado told a press conference in Caracas. “A substitute candidate is the plan by those who don’t want change and our plan is change, period.”
The ruling was “judicial crime” she said, adding there will be many obstacles still to overcome but there will be elections this year.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, additional reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston, Jeff Mason in Washington and Marc Jones in London; Editing by Bill Berkrot)