US hands Juan Guaido Venezuela's bank accounts as pressure mounts on Nicolas Maduro
Moscow says it will fully support Caracas but didn't give details on what steps it would take
In a major escalation, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday handed Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido government bank accounts held in America.
The assets include official accounts at US insured banks as well as funds held by Caracas at the US federal reserve.
Mr Pompeo said the move would "help Venezuela's legitimate government safeguard those assets for the benefit of the Venezuelan people."
The United States has been calling for all countries to follow suit and cut ties with President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist firebrand clinging to power amid a crumbling economy and rising street protests, and recognise Mr Guaido who heads the National Assembly. Over 30 countries have now publicly done so.
On Monday evening, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton walked into a press briefing about new sanctions on Venezuela with a yellow legal pad that was, accidentally or not, turned to face the press pack. On the otherwise clean sheet of paper were two lines of handwriting. “Afghanistan --> welcome the talks. 5,000 troops to Colombia.”
Pictures of the pad, and Mr Boltons whimsical flying elephant tie, shot across Twitter. Representatives of the council gave no explanation for the note and didn’t respond to questions about whether President Donald Trump would deploy the military to Venezuela’s neighbour.
Meanwhile, in Caracas, Mr Maduro has been out greeting soldiers and conducting training operations in a bid to cement and demonstrate his military backing. The US has urged the Venezuelan Army to accept a "peaceful" transfer of power as it ramps up the pressure.
The State Department called on all nations to "take similar steps to protect Venezuela's patrimony from further theft by Maduro's corrupt regime."
Last week, the Bank of England denied Mr Maduro’s request to withdraw $1.2 billion worth of gold. The sum is a sizable chunk of the county’s $8 billion in foreign reserves held by the Venezuelan central bank, although it is not known where the bulk of this is being held.
The news came as President Trump reiterated his support of Mr Guaido. “The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” President Trump said.
In a social media post this week, Mr Guaido said he was moving to take control of the country’s foreign assets to prevent what he said was “usurper and his band trying to empty the coffers.”
The US announced sanctions on Venezuela's state-owned oil company, aiming to increase pressure on Mr Maduro to leave office. But the incumbent has hit back saying he will respond with legal action against Washington.
Russian Deputy Finance Minister said on Tuesday said he expects Venezuela will have problems servicing its $3.15 billion in sovereign debt to Moscow. He cited Washington’s sweeping sanctions on Venezuela's state oil firm, a move the Kremlin has called illegal.
"There will probably be problems. Everything now depends on the army, on the soldiers and how faithful they will be to their duty and oath. It is difficult, impossible to give a different assessment," Sergei Storchak said. He added that the next twice-yearly interest-only payment from Venezuela of over $100 million was due at the end of March.
Despite Storchak's downbeat prediction, the Russian finance ministry issued a separate statement later on Tuesday saying it still expected the next payment to be made on time.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also vowed that Russia and its allies would “do everything” needed to protect Mr Maduro, although he didn’t elaborate on what that would entail.
Venezuela's economy has crumbled under Mr Maduro and political turmoil has raged with inflation seen rising to 10 million per cent this year, leading to food shortages, protests and mass emigration.
Some 10 per cent of the population is now believed to have left the country. More than 40 people have been killed and hundreds arrested in mass protests over the last week since Mr Guaido declared himself the acting president.
Updated: January 29, 2019 09:27 PM