STATE DEPARTMENT - The U.S. Special Representative to Venezuela Elliot Abrams told reporters at the State Department that America is "ready for change in Venezuela," and that embattled President Nicolas Maduro leaving power is a critical part of the country being able to move forward toward free elections and a transition to democracy.
But Abrams stressed "this isn't about punishment, this isn't about vengeance and we have tried to make that clear."
Abrams said he has not yet seen any signs of a willingness by Maduro to negotiate a compromise where he voluntarily leaves power.
Maduro's re-election in 2018 is considered to be illegitimate by many nations in the Western Hemisphere. The United States and more than 50 other countries recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela. Abrams said the negotiations hosted by Norway between Maduro's representatives and representatives of Guaido are on hiatus, with Guaido's team seeking to ascertain if Maduro is negotiating in good faith, or simply trying to buy time.
Maduro has confirmed that members of his government have also been holding talks with U.S. officials, saying there are contacts through various channels — with his direct permission.
Abrams pointed to the opening of the Venezuela Affairs Unit (VAU), under the leadership of Charge d'Affaires James Story at the U.S. Embassy in Bogata, Colombia, saying the U.S. wants to be ready for — in his words — "the day this regime falls."
Abrams told reporters Thursday that U.S. sanctions on top-ranking members of Maduro's government continue to have their desired effect, and that he believes they are finding it more difficult to sell their oil at market prices and to engage in financial transactions.
"The U.S. is hopeful the European Union will impose more sanctions on the regime in the coming months," he added.
Abrams said U.S. sanctions target Maduro's government and not the Venezuelan people, and include exceptions for the flow of food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.
"But the Maduro regime is spending its money in other ways — not on food or medicine but on repaying debts to Russia and China, buying Russian arms, and other ways that do not benefit the Venezuelan people, including massive corruption," he said.
The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela's oil industry in January in an attempt to bring down Maduro.
But China National Petroleum Corporation, or CNPC, and Russia's Rosneft, another major buyer of Venezuelan oil, are not subject to the U.S. sanctions.
"A company that has no connection to the United States, and does not transact business in dollars, would potentially be beyond the reach of those sanctions," Abrams said.
China and Russia are Venezuela's two main bilateral creditors and have major financial interests in Venezuela. But they have not aligned with the U.S. on policies toward the Maduro government.
For the first half of this year, China imported more than 8 million tons of crude oil from Venezuela, which is about 3.5% of its total imports, according to Chinese customs data.
The United States is cautious about reports that CNPC is suspending the purchase of crude from Venezuela in August.
"I don't know yet because we're still in August and we'll have to see what happens in August and September. We won't have data I think for a while," Abrams told VOA on Thursday.
Washington does not see the reported move as an indication that China is moving more in line with the U.S. toward the embattled Maduro government.
"It may be that CNPC withdraws, but that doesn't mean that China withdraws from buying Venezuelan oil," said Abrams in response to questions posed by VOA.
On Aug. 5, U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order, threatening to block U.S. assets and properties of any person or company determined to have "materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for" the Maduro government.