U.S. sanctions Cuban oil company over Venezuelan petroleum shipments to Havana

The U.S. government on Wednesday issued sanctions against Cuba’s main oil importing company in another attempt to pressure the island’s government to stop backing Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela.

The Treasury Department added the state-owned company Cubametales to the Office of Foreign Assets Control blacklist, which in essence freezes any assets it may have under U.S. jurisdiction. Cubametales is the main importer and exporter of metals and fuels on the island.

The measure aims to make it difficult to deliver Venezuelan oil to Havana at subsidized prices. The prices are part of a still-valid agreement signed by former leaders Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro at the beginning of 2000.

According to U.S. authorities, the oil sent by Maduro to Cuba is payment for the Cuban intelligence and repression services that operate in Venezuela that help the Venezuelan leader remain in power.

“Maduro clings to Cuba to stay in power, buying military and intelligence operatives in exchange for oil,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Treasury sanctions against Cubametales will interrupt Maduro’s attempts to use Venezuela’s oil as a negotiating tool to help his supporters buy protection from Cuba....”

The U.S. government, like 50 other nations, does not recognize Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela, but rather Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, who was sworn in as interim president once the legislature declared that Maduro was fraudulently elected.

The U.S. has already sanctioned Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, as well as several companies and ships that have participated in the shipments of oil to Havana. Even so, and despite the severe fall in oil production and the severe shortage of fuel in Venezuela, Maduro continues to send oil to the island, whose government is its main ally in the region.

Treasury also announced that it was removing PB Tankers S.p.A from its blacklist, thus eliminating the sanctions it had imposed in April against the shipping company for the same situation.

PB Tankers was punished after U.S. authorities determined that it was working with PDVSA and that one of its tankers, called Silver Point, had been used to transport petroleum products from Venezuela to Cuba.

After being sanctioned, the shipping company ended its agreement with Cubametales, which had hired the Silver Point to transport crude oil between Venezuela and Cuba.

Cubametales, based in Havana, is in charge of guaranteeing all imports of fuels, additives and oil for lubricants to and from Cuba.

In addition, the company has contracted for and received shipments of oil from Venezuela to Cuba and has expanded its operations to include non-traditional oil products such as fuel with a high content of sulfur and diluted crude.

As part of the original agreement between Cuba and Venezuela, Cubametales and PDVSA are in charge of establishing the terms and conditions of Venezuelan oil exports to the island. These currently stand at around 53,000 barrels per day, but for years remained at a level close to 120,000 barrels per day, U.S. authorities said.