March 18, 2019
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Trump touts options for Venezuela regime change, opposition names oil boards

Caracas, Feb 13 (efe-epa).- US President Donald Trump on Wednesday was mum on whether the United States would deploy 5,000 troops to Colombia to exert more pressure on Venezuela's leftist government but said he had many options for securing regime change.

"Our militaries are very focused and working together. And let's see how it all turns out," Trump told reporters during a meeting with Colombian counterpart Ivan Duque at the White House's Oval Office.

"We're going to make things turn out well. That's what we do. We make things work."

One of the reporters asked Trump about the controversial phrase "5,000 troops to Colombia" that could be read on a legal pad that National Security Adviser John Bolton carried into a press briefing on new Venezuela sanctions late last month.

"You'll see," Trump merely said, having earlier stated that he never talks about troop deployments. "There are a number of different solutions, a number of different options. And we look at all options."

Asked if he has a plan B if Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro does not hand over power to the speaker of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaido, who in January proclaimed himself to be the country's legitimate head of state, Trump said he always has "plan B - and C, and D, and E, and F."

"I have great flexibility. I probably have more flexibility than any man that's ever been in this office."

The United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and France are among the countries that say Maduro's May 2018 re-election victory was a sham and have recognized Guaido as the interim president of oil-rich Venezuela.

"A lot of things are happening in Venezuela that people don't know about. And there's a lot of support for what we're doing ... tremendous support," Trump said.

In Caracas, Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly, or Parliament, on Wednesday appointed an administrative board to control the country's petroleum industry, including state-run oil company PDVSA and its affiliate in the United States, Citgo.

The legislative body's decision was approved by the chamber's opposition majority after being presented in a report by the Energy and Petroleum Committee, which is headed by lawmaker Elias Matta.

With the measure, Simon Antunez, Gustavo J. Velasquez, David Smolansky, Carlos Jose Balza and Ricardo Alfredo Prada will make up the PDVSA board of directors amid a serious productivity crisis and corruption investigations involving the firm.

In addition, expert Luisa Palacios will head the board of PDV Holding Inc., the company that owns Citgo.

Edgar Rincon, Oswaldo Nuñez, Fernando Vera, Elio Tortolera and Andres Padilla will serve with Palacios on the PDV Holding Inc. board.

Citgo is considered to be the seventh-largest refinery in the US, with the capacity to process 750,000 barrels of heavy and extra heavy crude per day produced by PDVSA.

It is estimated that Citgo holds a 4 percent US market share.

The Parliament also appointed Palacios and Rincon to head Citgo Holding Inc., along with Angel Olmeta, Oswaldo Nuñez, Javier Troconis and Rick Esser.

No indication was provided as to how the selection process was conducted and no details were offered regarding the experience of the appointees.

Outside the capital, the "economic siege" that the United States has imposed on Venezuela is responsible for the "hardships" that Venezuelan citizens are experiencing due to the lack of food and medicine in the country, according to Freddy Bernal, the so-called "protector" of Tachira state, which borders on Colombia.

Bernal, who holds a post that was created in parallel to the Tachira government, said in an interview with EFE on the Venezuelan side of the Tienditas border bridge, in the municipality of Ureña, that four years ago the US "began a series of sanctions against (Venezuelan) corporations" that have harmed his country.

"They have been getting tighter, as a mechanism of suffocation, (but) they have not been able to suffocate us. This has caused shortages in our town, yes, and we blame the US government for those hardships," said Bernal, a Chavista strongman on the border with Colombia.

He called the US pressure on the Maduro government a "criminal siege" adding that, because of it, he took matters into his own hands and created the Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP).

"We bring food to six million families every month," he told EFE without any hint of self-criticism and always accompanied by about a dozen people.

He also pointed out that Washington prohibits international organizations from selling medicines to Venezuela to deal with diseases such as cancer and hypertension but that, "despite this, they have not managed to break the spirit of the people."

Venezuela is experiencing a dire economic crisis with widespread shortages and hyperinflation of almost 1.7 million percent in 2018, all of which has spurred an exodus of about 4 million people, according to Parliament and international organizations.

Meanwhile, China has been holding talks with Venezuela's political opposition to safeguard its investments in the troubled Latin American nation, hedging its bets as pressure builds on Maduro, the embattled leader for whom Beijing has been a vital ally, according to a report from Dow Jones Newswires supplied to EFE on Wednesday.

Chinese diplomats, worried over the future of its oil projects in Venezuela and nearly $20 billion that Caracas owes Beijing, have held debt negotiations in Washington in recent weeks with representatives of Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader heading the United States-backed efforts to oust Maduro, according to people familiar with the talks.

"China recognizes the increasing risk of a regime change and does not want to be on the bad side of a new regime," said R. Evan Ellis, an expert on Chinese relations in Latin America at the US Army War College. "While they prefer stability, they realize they have to put eggs in the other basket."

The talks are a sign of the apprehensions building with creditors of Venezuela's leftist government. Over nearly two decades, loans-for-oil deals with China and Russia have provided vital support for Venezuela. Relations flourished under Maduro's predecessor, the late socialist strongman Hugo Chávez, who fortified ties with those countries, Cuba, Iran and even India in an effort to combat US power.

But commercial and financial ties with these countries have been strained since Maduro, Chávez's handpicked successor, took power in 2013 and the economy began to shrink, with oil production plummeting by more than half after years of rampant graft and mismanagement.

Sanctions leveled by Washington last month on Venezuela's oil industry have exacerbated Maduro's difficulties, cutting off Venezuela's only meaningful source of income and portending further declines in oil output.

China's Foreign Ministry didn't respond to a request for comment about Beijing's contacts with the Venezuelan opposition, the Dow Jones report added.

In recent weeks, the ministry has suggested that discussions are taking place and Beijing wants to see its interests respected.

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