US sanctions are an 'attempt against our lives,' Venezuela's petroleum minister says

  • "The powers of the United States are out in front of this attack,” Manuel Quevedo told CNBC at the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee Meeting (JMMC) in Baku, Azerbaijan on Monday.
  • Venezuela's petroleum minister said the U.S. is trying to "appropriate" Venezuela's petroleum resources.

Venezuelan Petroleum Minister Manuel Quevedo has denounced U.S. sanctions against Caracas as a "direct attack" on its citizens.

His comments come at a time when the oil-rich, but cash-poor, country is suffering the Western Hemisphere's worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory.

"The powers of the United States are out in front of this attack," Quevedo told CNBC at the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee Meeting (JMMC) in Baku, Azerbaijan on Monday.

"With a political objective, they are trying to economically choke our country, our people, and appropriate our petroleum wealth."

The U.S. imposed targeted crude sanctions against Venezuela's state oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) and resources sector in January, choking a critical source of revenue for President Nicolas Maduro's embattled government.

Quevedo, a former National Guard official who also serves as the head of the state oil company, has been personally sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his involvement in funding the regime through PDVSA.

Blackout

"It affects all Venezuelans when they attack PDVSA, when blackouts happen like the one that happened in our country," Quevedo said, referring to last week's vast power failure that plunged millions of its citizens into almost complete darkness and put some essential services to a stop.

"People in hospitals died because of this blackout – that was an attack. For what? To impact the petroleum industry. So, it is no longer a purely economic attack, but an attempt against our lives," he said.

A failure at the Guri hydropower plant earlier this month pitched most of the South American country into darkness for days. The outage crippled the OPEC member country's oil exports and left millions of citizens struggling to find food and water.

Power was eventually restored to much of Venezuela, but many areas remain without electricity. It is widely expected that normal services may not resume for weeks.

Despite the U.S and international efforts to recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful interim leader, Maduro clings to power, despite a series of deadly clashes and a punishing economic crisis.

"We will continue to use the full weight of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy," a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said last week.

"We also urge responsible nations across the world to take action and stand with the people of Venezuela."

Oil prices

Crude oil prices hit 2019 highs as OPEC and its allies concluded a meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Brent crude oil futures reached $67.76 per barrel at 2.00 p.m. GMT on Tuesday, having earlier risen to a new 2019 high of $68.16 a barrel, their highest since November 2018.

OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo signaled that much was achieved, while Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al Falih expressed satisfaction with the mechanisms now in place to protect a market once vulnerable to price swings.

Quevedo met with his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak while in Baku, and agreed to open a PDVSA office in Moscow. He told reporters he would be on his way to the Russian capital next month.

It comes as Russian and US diplomats meet in Rome this week to discuss the next steps with Venezuela. Russia, a key ally not only for the petroleum industry, still backs President Nicolas Maduro.

Once a leading oil producer and a founding member of OPEC, Venezuela's massive oil reserves, the largest in the world, have proved no help in lifting the country and regular Venezuelans out of poverty.

The IEA has said Venezuelan oil output had dropped a further 100,000 barrels per day (b/d) in February to 1.14 million b/d, and the country's oil sector faced an uncertain future under the crippling U.S sanctions.

"In terms of OPEC, this is an organisation with economic ends – we do not respond to any type of orders from any foreign country," said Quevedo.

"We work based on the fundamentals of the market," he added.