US sanctions Cuban firm to weaken Maduro's hold in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The United States hit Cuba's state-run oil shipping firm Cubametales with financial sanctions on Wednesday, saying it's a key player propping up Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro.

"Maduro is clinging to Cuba to stay in power, buying military and intelligence operatives in exchange for oil," U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Treasury officials also lifted sanctions on PB Tankers' fleet of ships, praising the Italian firm for halting deliveries of Venezuelan oil to the island nation.

While the new sanctions will likely have little direct impact on the state-run Cuban company, they could stop firms from buying and selling oil from Cubametales out of fear of drawing Treasury's ire, just as PB Tankers had.

"If you help Cuba suck oil out of poor, starving Venezuela, you will be punished," said Russ Dallen, a Miami-based partner at brokerage Caracas Capital Markets. "But if you promise to go and sin no more, you can get off the devastatingly powerful US sanctions list."

The Trump administration has sanctioned dozens of Venezuelan officials, power brokers and businesses it accuses of raiding public coffers and carrying out human rights abuses against people struggling to survive as the country collapses in crisis.

The sanctions list includes Maduro, considered illegitimate by the Trump administration since his re-election last year. The U.S. and some 50 nations back opposition leader Juan Guaidó's campaign to oust Maduro.

Maduro, whose main backers also include Russia and China, says the U.S. is leading an imperialist economic war against Venezuela. That includes sanctions levied early this year against Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA.

Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez said in a visit to Colombia Wednesday that the sanctions are intended to send a signal to the Cuban government: That supporting Maduro carries more consequences than benefits.

"The Cubans need to understand that their support of Maduro is negative for them," the New Jersey senator said. "I think it's a very appropriate action."

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Associated Press writer Christine Armario contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.