The US Treasury sanctioned a series of European oil traders and crude tankers that allegedly helped a Mexican network work with Venezuela to evade US sanctions and move its crude oil to Asia and other parts of the world.
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The new sanctions from the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control comes on President Donald Trump's last full day in office as the Trump administration has sought to increase sanctions on Venezuela and make the penalties tougher for the incoming Biden administration to potentially unwind.
The new sanctions on Jan. 19 targeted three individuals, 14 entities and six vessels for their ties to a network allegedly attempting to evade US sanctions on Venezuela's oil sector. Participants on the Mexican side of the network were sanctioned last year.
Those sanctioned include the oil trading firms Swissoil Trading and Malta-based Elemento Ltd., as well as Swissoil owner Philipp Paul Vartan Apikian, Spanish-Venezuelan citizen Francisco Javier D'Agostino Casado, and core facilitator and Italian citizen Alessandro Bazzoni. The sanctions claim that Bazzoni connected Elemento and Swissoil with the Venezuelan state-owned oil firm, PDVSA, for the sale of Venezuelan heavy crude oil. D'Agostino allegedly represented PDVSA in the dealings.
"Those facilitating the illegitimate Maduro regime's attempts to circumvent United States sanctions contribute to the corruption that consumes Venezuela," said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in a statement. "The United States remains committed to targeting those enabling the Maduro regime's abuse of Venezuela's natural resources."
The vessels sanctioned for moving Venezuelan crude oil include the Russia-flagged Sierra and Maksim Gorky tankers, Cameroon-flagged Balita, Domani and Freedom tankers, and the Liberia-flagged Baliar.
According to Kpler vessel tracking software, the Maksim Gorky last delivered Venezuelan crude on Dec. 29 to Indonesia's Cilacap Refinery, and the Sierra delivered Venezuelan crude to China's Longkou Liquified Chemicals terminal on Dec. 22. The Balita also delivered Venezuelan crude to Longkou on Oct. 20, according to Kpler.
Kpler data shows the Domani and Freedom last delivered Venezuelan crude on Jan. 7 and Jan. 8, respectively, to Malaysia's offshore Linggi International Floating Transshipment Hub, where petroleum can be transferred via lightering.
The Baliar, listed as the Legacy by Kpler, reportedly delivered Venezeulan crude to China's Dongjiakou terminal.
Other companies sanctioned are all firms owned or controlled by Bazzoni, D'Agostino or Elemento, including the New York-based 82 Elm Realty and Catalina Holdings Corp.
Treasury and the State Department both said the actions targeted those with larger ties to a Mexican network that conspired with Nicolas Maduro's oil minister, Tareck El Aissami, and indicted money launderer Alex Nain Saab Moran to broker the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars of Venezuelan oil.
The US has continued to recognize self-described Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaido as the country's rightful leader. That recognition includes protecting the control of PDVSA's most valuable foreign asset, Citgo Petroleum, which is under the sway of Guaido.
The Trump administration recently extended until July 21 a ban on seizing Citgo shares as repayment for PDVSA's outstanding debts. US federal court rulings have repeatedly decided that PDVSA's creditors, such as the defunct Canadian mining firm Crystallex International, and others can seize Citgo shares and auction them in order to recoup what they're owed.
Punting until July next leaves the fate of Citgo in the hands of President-elect Joe Biden.
Because of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, some industry and advocacy groups will press the Biden administration to undo some sanctions and reverse a ban on crude-for-diesel swaps. There are humanitarian concerns about the limited diesel supplies in a country that's heavily dependent on the fuel for transportation.