Saudi oil output to recover in two or three weeks after attack: sources

A satellite image showing damage to oil/gas Saudi Aramco infrastructure at Abqaiq, in Saudi Arabia in this handout picture released by the U.S Government September 15, 2019. U.S. Government/DigitalGlobe/Handout via REUTERS

By Alex Lawler and Parisa Hafezi

LONDON/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia sought to calm markets on Tuesday after an attack on its oil facilities, with sources in the kingdom saying output was recovering much more quickly than initially forecast and could be fully back in two or three weeks.

International oil companies, fellow members of the OPEC oil cartel and global energy policymakers had heard no updates on the impact of the weekend attack from the Saudis for 48 hours, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

And on Monday, sources briefed on state oil giant Aramco’s operations had said it could take months for output to recover.

The attack knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, or 5% of global output, sending prices soaring when trading resumed on Monday. So the new prediction of a quick return to normal output sent prices down sharply on Tuesday.

The kingdom is close to restoring 70% of the 5.7 million barrels per day lost due to the attack, a top Saudi official said, adding that Aramco’s output would be fully back online in the next two to three weeks.

The Saudi energy minister will hold a news conference on Tuesday at 1715 GMT, giving what would be the first official update since Aramco announced on Sunday that attacks on its plants in Abqaiq and Khurais had knocked out 5.7 million barrels per day.

While the Houthi group, which is fighting a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Iran. That accusation prompted Iran’s supreme leader on Tuesday to rule out talks with Washington.

NUCLEAR ACCORD

Trump said on Monday that it looked like Iran was behind the strike at the heart of the Saudi oil industry, but stressed he did not want to go to war. Iran denied it was to blame.

“Iranian officials, at any level, will never talk to American officials … this is part of their policy to put pressure on Iran,” Iranian state TV quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying.

He said talks could only take place if the United States returned to a nuclear accord between Iran and the West that Trump abandoned last year.

U.S.-Iran relations deteriorated after Trump quit the accord and reimposed sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic programs. He also wants Iran to stop supporting regional proxies, including the Houthis.

But a day after warning that the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond to the incident, Trump dialed down his rhetoric, saying on Monday there was “no rush” to do so and that Washington was coordinating with Gulf Arab and European states.

“I’m not looking at options right now. We want to find definitively who did this.”

Britain and Germany agreed they needed to work with international partners to form a collective response and de-escalate tensions as efforts continued to establish exactly what happened, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Iran nuclear pact, which European parties are trying to salvage, is one building block “we need to get back to”.

Saudi Arabia, which has supported tougher U.S. sanctions on Iran, said an initial investigation showed the strikes were carried out with Iranian weapons.

INVESTIGATION

Riyadh asked international experts to join its investigation, which indicates the attack did not come from Yemen, the foreign ministry said. U.S. officials say they believe it came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Yemenis had launched the strikes in retaliation for attacks by a Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthis for four years. Riyadh says Tehran arms the group, which has fired missiles and drones on Saudi cities, a charge both deny.

King Salman, heading a cabinet meeting on Monday, said Riyadh would handle the consequences of “cowardly attacks” that target vital Saudi installations, world crude supplies and global economic stability. The cabinet urged the world to confront those threats “regardless of their origin”.

The assault damaged the world’s biggest crude oil processing plant, triggering the largest jump in oil prices in decades. It was the worst such attack on regional oil facilities since Saddam Hussein torched Kuwait’s oil wells during the 1990-91 Gulf war.

However, dollar-denominated bonds issued by the Saudi government and Aramco rebounded on Tuesday, in a sign investors’ concern may be abating.

Trump said he was sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia soon, but he had not made any commitments to protect the Saudis. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.”

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Reuters teams in London, Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo, Berlin, Paris, Singapore and New Delhi; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Cawthorne)

Explainer: How the Saudi attack affects global oil supply

A worker fills up a car at a gas station in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia September 16, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

LONDON (Reuters) – The strike on the heartland of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, including damage to the world’s biggest petroleum-processing facility, has driven oil prices to their highest level in nearly four months.

Here are some facts about the impact on oil supply and spare capacity:

WHY IS IT SO DISRUPTIVE FOR GLOBAL OIL SUPPLIES?

The attack on Saudi oil facilities on Saturday not only knocked out over half of the country’s production, it also removed almost all the spare capacity available to compensate for any major disruption in oil supplies worldwide.

The attack cut 5.7 million barrels per day (bpd) of Saudi crude output, over 5 percent of the world’s supply. But the attack also constrained Saudi Arabia’s ability to use the more than 2 million bpd of spare oil production capacity it held for emergencies.

The kingdom has for years been the only major oil-producing country that has kept significant spare capacity that it could start up quickly to compensate for any deficiency in supply caused by war or natural disaster.

Most other countries cannot afford to drill expensive wells and install infrastructure, then maintain it idle.

Before the attack, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) global supply cushion was just over 3.21 million barrels per day (bpd), according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Saudi Arabia – the de facto leader of OPEC – had 2.27 million bpd of that capacity. That leaves around 940,000 bpd of spare capacity, mostly held by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Iraq and Angola also have some spare capacity. They may now bring that production online to help plug some of the gap left by Saudi Arabia – but it won’t be enough.

HAVEN’T OPEC AND ITS ALLIES BEEN CUTTING OUTPUT? CAN’T THEY JUST REVERSE THOSE CUTS?

Yes, OPEC and its allies such as Russia have cut output to prevent prices from weakening because the market has been oversupplied.

Those cuts aimed to reduce supply by 1.2 million bpd. But much of that was from Saudi Arabia so it now cannot be reversed quickly.

Non-OPEC members such as Russia are pumping near capacity, with perhaps only 100,000-150,000 bpd of available additional production.

WHAT ABOUT IRAN?

Iran holds spare capacity but it cannot get the oil to market because of sanctions imposed by the government of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Iran’s exports have fallen over 2 million bpd since April.

Washington has said Iran was behind Saturday’s attack, so is unlikely to ease sanctions to allow Iran to plug a gap it believes was created by Tehran.

Iran, for its part, said after the attack that it would pump at full volume if sanctions were eased.

AND VENEZUELA?

U.S. sanctions have also impacted the Venezuelan oil industry. But Venezuelan output has been in free fall for years and state oil company PDVSA is unlikely to be able to boost production much even if sanctions were eased.

WHAT ABOUT U.S. SHALE? CAN SHALE PRODUCERS PUMP MORE?

The United States has become the world’s top crude producer after years of rapid growth in supply from the shale sector, much of it pumped from fields in Texas. The U.S. has also grown as an exporter and shipped more crude to international markets in June than Saudi Arabia.

Shale producers can move quickly to pump more when prices rise and can bring production online in a matter of months. That is a much faster timeline than most traditional oil production.

If the Saudi outage looks like it will be prolonged and oil prices rally significantly, then shale producers will raise output.

But even if shale producers pump more, there are constraints on how much the United States can export because oil ports are already near capacity.

(Graphic: U.S. Oil Production png, https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/OIL-PRODUCTION-US/0H001PBVH68N/eikon.png)

SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW? WHAT ABOUT OIL IN STORAGE?

It all depends on how long the outage lasts.

Saudi Arabia, the United States and China all have hundreds of millions of barrels of oil in strategic storage. That is the storage that governments keep for exactly this scenario – to compensate for unexpected outages in supply.

They can release oil from strategic storage to meet demand and temper the impact on prices. U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday he had authorized a release from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The IEA, which coordinates energy policies of industrialized nations, advises all its members to keep the equivalent of 90 days of net oil imports in storage.

Oil from storage should keep the market supplied for some time, but oil markets will likely become increasingly volatile as storage is run down and the possibility of a supply crunch rises.

The IEA said on Saturday the markets were still well supplied despite the Saudi disruptions.

“We are massively oversupplied,” said Christyan Malek, head of oil and gas research for Europe, Middle East and Africa at J.P. Morgan, adding it would take five months of a 5 million-bpd outage to take global crude supply levels back to a 40-year normal average.

“Having said that, this attack introduces a new, irreversible risk premium into the market,” he added.

WHAT HAPPENS IF THERE IS ANOTHER SUPPLY DISRUPTION?

With no spare capacity, future disruptions would cause oil prices to rise. A higher price over time will encourage producers to invest and pump more, while at the same time reducing consumption.

OPEC member Libya is in the middle of a civil war, which threatens its ability to continue pumping oil. Another big Libyan disruption would add to the shocks and highlight the lack of spare capacity.

Nigerian exports have also suffered from disruptions.

Even before the Saudi attack, spare capacity was falling. Consultancy Energy Aspects has said it expects OPEC spare capacity to fall to below 1 million bpd in the fourth quarter from two million bpd in the second quarter of 2019.

(Reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov, Ron Bousso and Alex Lawler; Writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov and Simon Webb; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

U.S. removed almost 2.7 million barrels daily of Iranian oil from market: Pompeo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacts as he talks to the media after his meeting with Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri at the State Department in Washington, U.S., August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has removed nearly 2.7 million barrels of Iranian oil from global markets daily as a result of Washington’s decision to reimpose sanctions on all purchases of Iran’s crude, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday.

In an interview with MSNBC, Pompeo said the U.S. government was confident it could continue with its strategy.

The United States re-imposed sanctions on Iran in November after pulling out of a 2015 nuclear accord between Tehran and six world powers. In May, Washington ended sanction waivers given to importers of Iranian oil, aiming to cut Tehran’s exports to zero.

Iran exported about 100,000 bpd of crude in July, according to an industry source who tracks such flows and data from Refinitiv Eikon. If condensate, a light oil, is included, shipments were about 120,000 bpd a day.

“We have managed to take almost 2.7 million barrels of crude oil off of the market, denying Iran the wealth to create their terror campaign around the world, and we have managed to keep the oil markets fully supplied,” Pompeo said.

“I am confident we can continue to do that,” he added.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Russia and other producers have been cutting 1.2 million bpd since Jan. 1 to reduce global supply. OPEC in July renewed the pact until March 2020 to avoid a build-up of inventories as worldwide demand is seen weakening.

Despite OPEC’s actions along with U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, Brent crude international oil prices <LCOc1> have been relatively weak, falling on Tuesday to $59 a barrel from a 2019 high of $75, pressured by concerns about slowing demand.

The exact level of Iranian exports has become harder to assess since U.S. sanctions returned in November, meaning estimates fall into a range rather than a definitive figure.

 

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao)

Rule of law has crumbled in Venezuela: jurists’ group

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro greets people next to his wife Cilia Flores during a rally in support of the government in Caracas, Venezuela May 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The rule of law has crumbled in Venezuela under the government of President Nicolas Maduro which has usurped the powers of the legislative and judicial branches, an international legal watchdog said on Monday.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called on Venezuelan authorities to reinstate democratic institutions as part of a solution to the political, economic and humanitarian crisis engulfing the OPEC member.

The government and a compliant Supreme Court effectively stripped the National Assembly of most powers after the opposition won a majority in 2015 elections.

Lawmakers loyal to Maduro generally do not attend the sessions but go to meetings of the Constituent Assembly, a legislative body that meets in the same building.

The Constituent Assembly, created in a 2017 election boycotted by the opposition, is controlled by the ruling Socialist Party and its powers supersede the National Assembly.

Sam Zarifi, ICJ secretary-general, presented its latest report on Venezuela: “No Room for Debate”.

“The focus of this report is on the usurpation of the authority of the legislative by the government in Venezuela. This comes after the judiciary was taken over,” he told a news briefing.

“It seems quite clear that in response to the loss of direct support in the legislative assembly, the government decided to completely trample on the principle of the rule of law really and separation of powers,” he said.

The Constituent Assembly was “formed improperly and illegitimately” and has gone far beyond its stated role, Zarifi said, adding: “In fact it seemed to do everything but really discuss a new Constitution”.

Rafael Chavero Gazdik, a professor of constitutional law at Universidad Central de Venezuela, said that the new body had not produced any work on a new draft charter.

“Basically it is a body that is helping the President to do whatever he wants without the rule of law,” he said.

“After two years we have not seen in Venezuela a single draft of any article for a new Constitution – not a single one.”

After their parliamentary immunity was stripped, four lawmakers of the National Assembly are in jail and another 22 have fled Venezuela, Chavero said.

Venezuela’s opposition will meet with representatives of Maduro’s government in Barbados for talks mediated by Norway, the parties involved said on Sunday, as part of efforts to resolve the political crisis.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by more than 50 governments, invoked the constitution in January to assume a rival presidency.

“Addressing the problem of the National Constituent Assembly is a crucial step in any political solution to the crisis that has gripped Venezuela,” ICJ’s Zarifi said, urging the government to engage with the opposition-led legislature.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Oil prices hit 2019 highs on OPEC cuts and U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: Pumpjacks are seen against the setting sun at the Daqing oil field in Heilongjiang province, China December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Stringe

By Dmitry Zhdannikov

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices rose to new 2019 highs on Tuesday, supported by OPEC supply cuts and falling output from Iran and Venezuela because of U.S. sanctions.

Brent crude oil futures were up 16 cents at $67.70 a barrel at 1415 GMT, having earlier risen to a 2019 peak of $68.20, their highest since November 2018.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures were at $59.17, up 8 cents from their last settlement. They also touched their highest since November at $59.57.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on Monday scrapped its planned meeting in April, effectively extending supply cuts that have been in place since January until its next regular meeting in June.

OPEC and a group of non-affiliated producers including Russia, known as OPEC+, cut supply in 2019 to halt a sharp price drop that began in the second-half of 2018 on booming U.S. production and fears of a global economic slowdown.

Saudi Arabia has signaled that OPEC and its allies could continue to restrain oil output until the end of 2019.

“The OPEC+ deal has brought stability to crude prices and signs of an extension have taken crude higher,” said Alfonso Esparza, senior market analyst at futures brokerage OANDA.

Prices have been further supported by U.S. sanctions against oil exports from Iran and Venezuela, traders said.

Venezuela has suspended its oil exports to India, one of its key export destinations, the Azeri energy ministry said on Tuesday, citing Venezuela’s oil minister.

Because of the tighter supply outlook for the coming months, the Brent forward curve has gone into backwardation since the start of the year, meaning that prices for immediate delivery are more expensive than those for dispatch in the future. May Brent prices were around $1.20 a barrel more expensive than for December delivery.

(GRAPHIC: Brent crude oil forward curves – https://tmsnrt.rs/2FlM7YZ)

Outside OPEC, analysts are watching U.S. crude oil production that has risen by more than 2 million barrels per day (bpd) since early 2018, to about 12 million bpd, making the United States the world’s biggest producer ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Weekly output and storage data will be published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Wednesday.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch said that economic “risks are skewed to the downside” and it is forecasting global demand growth of 1.2 million bpd year on year in 2019 and 1.15 million bpd in 2020.

The bank said it expects Brent and WTI to average $70 and $59 a barrel respectively in 2019 and $65 and $60 a barrel in 2020.

(Reporting by Henning Gloystein; Editing Joseph Radford and David Goodman)

Venezuela congress declares ‘state of alarm’ over blackout

People collect water released through a sewage drain that feeds into the Guaire River, which carries most of the city's wastewater, in Caracas, Venezuela March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Shaylim Valderrama and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition-run congress on Monday declared a “state of alarm” over a five-day power blackout that has crippled the OPEC member country’s oil exports and left millions of citizens scrambling to find food and water.

Much of Venezuela remained without power on Monday, although electricity had largely returned to the capital of Caracas following an outage that began on Thursday and which President Nicolas Maduro has called an act of U.S.-backed sabotage.

The outage has added to discontent in a country already suffering from hyperinflation and a political crisis after opposition leader Juan Guaido assumed the interim presidency in January after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud.

Venezuelan citizens living in Bogota protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and the continuing power outage in Venezuela, in Bogota, Colombia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Julio Martinez

Venezuelan citizens living in Bogota protest against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and the continuing power outage in Venezuela, in Bogota, Colombia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Julio Martinez

“Nothing is normal in Venezuela, and we will not allow this tragedy to be considered normal, which is why we need this decree of a state of alarm,” said Guaido, who heads the legislature, during the session on Monday.

The constitution allows the president to declare states of alarm amid catastrophes that “seriously compromise the security of the nation,” but does not explicitly say what practical impact such a declaration would have.

Guaido has been recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by the United States and most Western countries, but Maduro retains control of the armed forces and state institutions, and the backing of Russia and China, among others.

Oil industry sources said that exports from the primary port of Jose had been halted for lack of power, cutting off Venezuela’s primary source of revenue.

During the legislative session, Guaido called for a halt in shipments of oil to Maduro’s political ally Cuba, which has received discounted crude from Venezuela for nearly two decades. The deals have drawn scrutiny from the opposition and its allies abroad as Venezuela’s economic crisis worsened.

“We ask for the international community’s cooperation to make this measure effective so that the oil the Venezuelan people urgently need to attend to this national emergency is not given away,” Guaido said.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton backed the measure, writing on Twitter that, “insurance companies and flag carriers that facilitate these give-away shipments to Cuba are now on notice.” He did not specify any measures the U.S. government may take.

Earlier on Monday, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on a Russian bank over its dealings with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Russia’s Rosneft for buying PDVSA oil.

People collect water released through a sewage drain that feeds into the Guaire River, which carries most of the city's wastewater, in Caracas, Venezuela March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People collect water released through a sewage drain that feeds into the Guaire River, which carries most of the city’s wastewater, in Caracas, Venezuela March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

RESTORATION ‘COMPLEX’

The blackout has left food rotting in refrigerators, hospitals have struggled to keep equipment operating, and people have clustered on the streets of Caracas to pick up patchy telephone signals to reach relatives abroad.

On Monday, Venezuelans seeking water formed lines to fill containers from a sewage pipe.

“This is driving me crazy,” said Naile Gonzalez in Chacaito, a commercial neighborhood of Caracas. “The government doesn’t want to accept that this is their fault because they haven’t carried out any maintenance in years.”

Venezuela’s electrical grid has suffered from years of underinvestment. Restrictions on imports have affected the provision of spare parts, while many skilled technical personnel have fled the country amid an exodus of more than 3 million Venezuelans in recent years.

Winston Cabas, the president of an electrical engineers’ professional association, told reporters that several of the country’s thermoelectric plants were operating at just 20 percent of capacity, in part due to lack of fuel. He said the government was rationing electricity.

The process of restoring service was “complex” and could take between five and six days, he said.

“We once had the best electricity system in the world – the most vigorous, the most robust, the most powerful – and those who now administer the system have destroyed it,” he said.

A source at PDVSA also said the government had decided to ration electricity, in part to supply power to the Jose oil export terminal.

The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts consulted by Reuters believe the nationwide blackout originated in transmission lines that transport energy from the Guri hydroelectric plant to the Venezuelan south.

The lack of electricity has aggravated a crisis in Venezuelan hospitals, already lacking investment and maintenance in addition to a shortage of medicines.

School and work activities are set to be suspended on Tuesday, the third working day in a row.

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama, Vivian Sequera, Anggy Polanco, and Deisy Buitrago; additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; writing by Daniel Flynn, Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen; editing by Grant McCool and Rosalba O’Brien)

Venezuelan opposition envoy urges foreign help to get aid in

Venezuelans line up as they wait for a free lunch at the "Divina Providencia" migrant shelter outskirts of Cucuta, on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, Colombia February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Luc Cohen and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Venezuelan opposition’s envoy to the United States accused the government of President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday of blocking humanitarian aid to the country and urged the international community to help open “thousands of windows” to let assistance in.

Carlos Vecchio, opposition leader Juan Guaido’s representative in Washington, spoke to an international aid conference hosted at the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington as a deadlock persisted in delivering aid to the crisis-stricken South American country.

Guaido invoked constitutional provisions last month to declare himself interim president, arguing that Maduro’s re-election last year was a sham.

Most Western countries, including the United States and many of Venezuela&rsquo;s neighbors, have recognized Guaido as the country&rsquo;s legitimate head of state, but Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as control of Venezuelan state institutions including the military.

Guaido told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23, setting the stage for a showdown with Maduro.

“They are blocking humanitarian aid that’s being sent,” Vecchio told the conference, which was attended by diplomats and representatives from dozens of countries. “We must open thousands of windows to bring humanitarian aid to Venezuela … Here we are creating an international coalition to bring in food and medicine.”

Lester Toledo, the opposition’s humanitarian aid coordinator, recounted an incident in 2016 when protesters marched to the border with Colombia where aid was being held up.

“That’s exactly what we’re going to do next Saturday,” he told the conference, suggesting how aid might make its way into Venezuela. “With people, people and more people working peacefully.”

Maduro has called the aid a U.S.-orchestrated show and denies there is an economic crisis, despite a widespread lack of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

But Gustavo Tarre, the opposition’s OAS representative, insisted the only objective is “to relieve the suffering of Venezuelans” and that there no political, economic or military motives.

Last week, the United Nations warned against politicizing aid in Venezuela after the United States accused Maduro of preventing the delivery of food and medicine.

An aid convoy supplied by the United States and Colombia arrived in the Colombian border town of Cucuta last week, where it is being held in warehouses.

The United States has said it will try to channel aid to Venezuela, via Colombia and possibly Brazil.

Elliott Abrams, Washington’s special envoy on Venezuela, said last week the aid effort was being coordinated with Guaido’s team but that the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

Maduro has overseen an economic collapse that has left millions struggling for food and fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An estimated 3 million Venezuelans have left the oil-rich OPEC country since 2015, some 800,000 of whom have ended up in Colombia.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and James Dalgleish)

Venezuela opposition envoys in Rome to press Guaido’s cause

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, talks to the media after attending a religious event in Caracas, Venezuela February 10, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Philip Pullella and Vivian Sequera

VATICAN CITY/CARACAS (Reuters) – Envoys for Venezuela’s self-declared caretaker leader Juan Guaido met Vatican officials and lobbied the Italian government for support on Monday in their quest to keep international pressure on socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

The Vatican, which has offered to mediate, called for respect for rights and avoidance of bloodshed after Guaido’s bid to end two decades of increasingly authoritarian leftist rule in the volatile OPEC member nation of 30 million people.

Members of the Vatican Secretariat of State met a delegation including Francisco Sucre, president of the foreign affairs commission of Venezuela’s National Assembly, and Antonio Ledezma, former mayor of Caracas.

They also met Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.

“We’re in Italy to seek more support for our President @jguaido,” tweeted Ledezma. “We’re doing well, but we need to finish this with victory.”

The Vatican “underscored the deep concern that a just and peaceful solution could be found urgently to overcome the crisis while respecting human rights, seeking the good of all the country’s people and avoiding bloodshed,” it said in a statement.

Pope Francis has said the Vatican could mediate if both sides asked. Maduro wants that, but Venezuela’s opposition is skeptical given past dialogue failures and Guaido says the starting point for any talks must be Maduro’s exit.

Venezuela’s opposition regards Maduro as an incompetent dictator who has wrecked their economy and crushed dissent, while he calls them puppets of Washington seeking a coup in order to control the nation’s vast oil reserves.

Rank-and-file opposition supporters, though often Roman Catholics, are suspicious of the Vatican given its support of past talks that have enabled Maduro to win time and survive various waves of protests.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin calls the Holy See’s stance “positive neutrality”, saying it has to stay above both sides if it is to help.

The Venezuela conflict has fed into a wider geopolitical struggle. Along with U.S. President Donald Trump, numerous Latin American and European nations have recognized Guaido as interim president and backed his calls for a new, free election.

But other powers, including Russia and China who have billions of dollars invested and loaned to Caracas, have denounced outside interference and backed Maduro.

Breaking the unity of other major European countries, Italy’s coalition government is divided over Venezuela.

Salvini, far-right leader of the Northern League party and also interior minister, favors recognizing Guaido, but its coalition partner the 5-Star Movement believes that is a bad precedent.

Salvini telephoned Guaido while the Venezuelan delegation was visiting him, stressing his opposition to Maduro and support for a new vote, his office said.

Guaido, who heads Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly, invoked a constitutional provision last month to declare himself president.

As well as the Vatican, Norway, another traditional international mediator, has also offered to help with dialogue.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome, Vivian Sequera in Caracas, Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Trump says U.S. military intervention in Venezuela ‘an option;’ Russia objects

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido and his wife Fabiana Rosales gesture during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option” as Western nations boost pressure on socialist leader Nicolas Maduro to step down, while the troubled OPEC nation’s ally Russia warned against “destructive meddling.”

The United States, Canada, and several Latin American countries have disavowed Maduro over his disputed re-election last year and recognized self-proclaimed President Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful leader.

Trump said U.S. military intervention was under consideration in an interview with CBS aired on Sunday.

“Certainly, it’s something that’s on the – it’s an option,” Trump said, adding that Maduro requested a meeting months ago.

“I’ve turned it down because we’re very far along in the process,” he said in a “Face the Nation” interview. “So, I think the process is playing out.”

The Trump administration last week issued crippling sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA, a key source of revenue for the country, which is experiencing medicine shortages and malnutrition.

Maduro, who has overseen an economic collapse and the exodus of millions of Venezuelans, maintains the backing of Russia, China and Turkey, and the critical support of the military.

Russia, a major creditor to Venezuela in recent years, urged restraint.

“The international community’s goal should be to help (Venezuela), without destructive meddling from beyond its borders,” Alexander Shchetinin, head of the Latin America department at Russia’s Foreign Ministry, told Interfax.

France and Austria said they would recognize Guaido if Maduro did not respond to the European Union’s call for a free and fair presidential election by Sunday night.

“We don’t accept ultimatums from anyone,” Maduro said in a defiant interview with Spanish television channel La Sexta carried out last week and broadcast on Sunday.

“I refuse to call for elections now – there will be elections in 2024. We don’t care what Europe says.”

EMBOLDENED OPPOSITION

The 35-year-old Guaido, head of the country’s National Assembly, has breathed new life into a previously fractured and weary opposition. Tens of thousands of people thronged the streets of various Venezuelan cities on Saturday to protest Maduro’s government.

Guaido allies plan to take a large quantity of food and medicine donated by the United States, multilateral organizations and non-profit groups across the Colombian border into the Venezuelan state of Tachira this week, according to a person directly involved in the effort.

The group has not yet determined which border point it will cross, said the person, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

It is unclear whether Maduro’s government, which denies the country is suffering a humanitarian crisis, will let any foreign aid through.

The embattled president on Sunday promised peace for Venezuela without specifically responding to Trump.

“In Venezuela, there will be peace, and we will guarantee this peace with the civil-military union,” he told state television, in the company of khaki and black-clad soldiers who were earlier shown carrying guns and jumping from helicopters into the sea.

Maduro has overseen several such military drills since Guaido declared himself president to display he has the backing of the military, and that Venezuela&rsquo;s armed forces are ready to defend the country.

Air Force General Francisco Yanez disavowed Maduro in a video this weekend, calling on members of the military to defect. But there were no signs the armed forces were turning against Maduro.

Venezuela has as many as 2,000 generals, according to unofficial estimates, many of whom do not command troops and whose defection would not necessarily weaken the ruling socialists.

The police have also fallen in line with Maduro.

A special forces unit called FAES led home raids following unrest associated with opposition protests in January, killing as many as 10 people in a single operation in a hillside slum of Caracas.

Venezuela’s ambassador to Iraq, Jonathan Velasco, became the latest official to recognize opposition leader Guaido this weekend.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)

EU parliament recognizes Guaido as Venezuelan interim president

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido attends a meeting with supporters to present a government plan of the opposition in Caracas, Venezuela January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Parliament recognized Venezuela’s self-declared interim president Juan Guaido as de facto head of state on Thursday, heightening international pressure on the OPEC member’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

EU lawmakers voted 439 in favor to 104 against, with 88 abstentions, at a special session in Brussels to recognize Venezuelan congress head Guaido as interim leader.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro sits between National Constituent Assembly (ANC) President Diosdado Cabello (L) and National Electoral Council (CNE) President Tibisay Lucena during a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), in Caracas, Venezuela, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro sits between National Constituent Assembly (ANC) President Diosdado Cabello (L) and National Electoral Council (CNE) President Tibisay Lucena during a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), in Caracas, Venezuela, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

In a statement with the non-binding vote, the parliament urged the bloc’s 28 governments to follow suit and consider Guaido “the only legitimate interim president” until there were “new free, transparent and credible presidential elections”.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who spoke to Guaido on Wednesday and wants further EU sanctions on Venezuelan officials, urged counterparts to embrace the 35-year-old head of Venezuela’s National Assembly.

“Parliament has spoken. For us, Mr. Guaido is the president of Venezuela and we do hope that the European Union will find a united position on this,” he told reporters on arrival at a two-day meeting of EU foreign ministers in Bucharest.

Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said he was ready to join a common position on Venezuela if the bloc could agree what next steps to take.

Though accusing Maduro of stifling democracy, the European Union is nervous at the precedent of a self-declaration, so has been reluctant to follow the United States and most Latin American nations with immediate recognition of Guaido.

Britain, France, Germany and Spain said on Saturday, however, that they would recognize Guaido unless Maduro called elections within eight days. But the EU as a whole has not set a time limit in its call for a new presidential vote.

Maduro has dismissed the demands as an unacceptable ultimatum from the corrupt elite of spent colonial powers.

“The leaders of Europe are sycophants, kneeling behind the policies of Donald Trump,” he said at the weekend.

The European Parliament has no foreign policy powers but sees itself as a champion of human rights.

“Those who are demonstrating today in the streets of Venezuela are not Europeans, but they fight for the same values for which we fight,” Spanish center-right EU lawmaker Esteban Gonzalez Pons said in a statement.

As Venezuela has sunk into economic and political crisis that has brought mass emigration and hyperinflation, the EU imposed an arms embargo and sanctions on officials to decry what it views as rights violations and the rupture of democracy.

On Thursday, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists said seven foreign journalists were detained in Venezuela, including French and Spanish reporters. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called for their release.

(Additional reporting by Clare Roth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)