WASHINGTON - New sanctions on Venezuela aren't aimed at regime change but rather to push President Nicolas Maduro's government to restore democratic standards after he started a process to rewrite his nation's constitution, a top U.S. official said Thursday.
The comments by Rick Waddell, the White House's deputy national security adviser, suggest a softening in America's position. President Donald Trump last month suggested the U.S. could consider military action against Venezuela and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the idea of pressuring Maduro to leave power.
Waddell said sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in August are "behaviorally focused.''
The set of penalties banned American financial institutions from providing new money to Venezuela's government or its state oil company, PDVSA. They also barred trading in two bonds the government recently issued to circumvent its increasing isolation from Western financial markets. Also, Venezuelan oil giant's U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, can no longer send dividends back to Venezuela, which the government says will further crush its beleaguered economy.
"We would like the Venezuelan regime to return to democratic process,'' Waddell said. "We would like them to respect human rights. We would like them to respect property. That does not necessarily necessitate regime change.''
The United States has escalated its pressure on Venezuela as Maduro has consolidated power in recent months. More than 120 people have been killed during four months of protests against Maduro's plans to rewrite Venezuela's constitution. A referendum in July gave his allies the authority to start the process, even though the vote has been widely criticized at home and abroad for alleged fraud and a lack of oversight.
But Trump took the U.S. into uncharted territory last month when he wouldn't rule out a U.S. military action against Venezuela, even if no one in the U.S. government has since indicated there are concrete plans for such an intervention. Tillerson, meanwhile, said the U.S. was evaluating policy options to create conditions so that "either Maduro decides he doesn't have a future, and wants to leave of his own accord, or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.''
The main American focus right now remains economic pressure.
The U.S. "will continue to consider additional sanctions'' on Venezuela, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters Wednesday.
Waddell, meanwhile, also sought to send a message to China, which he said owns about $60 billion in Venezuelan debt.
Asked if Venezuela might default, Waddell said that "all of us have seen Latin American defaults before, so there will be some kind of debt shakedown.''
"If I were the Chinese central government or party, I am not sure how much more I would lend them,'' he said at the CAF Development Bank of Latin America's annual congress in Washington. "The Chinese regime has to worry at some point on being repaid.''
The Venezuelan government and state oil company face a $4 billion debt bill by the end of the year. It has only $9.7 billion in international reserves on hand.