The U.S. administration is considering choking off Venezuela's last remaining and rapidly dwindling source of income: crude oil exports.
Speaking in Argentina, Sec. of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. was discussing how to raise the pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to restore his country's constitution and hold free and fair elections.
"Obviously sanctioning the oil, or in effect prohibiting the oil to be sold in the United States... is something we continue to consider," he told reporters on Sunday.
Banning exports of oil or refined oil products to Venezuela was also on the table, Tillerson added.
Oil sanctions are one of the few options President Trump has to really hurt Maduro.
Venezuelan production has been falling fast since 2014, but the country still pumped 1.7 million barrels a day in December, according to industry estimates.
Exports to the U.S. averaged more than 600,000 barrels a day between January and November last year, data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows.
The decline in oil production is already deepening the misery for 30 million Venezuelans suffering from food shortages and a lack of basic medicines. Sanctioning oil exports could make matters much worse.
"The situation is becoming quite dire in Venezuela," said Tillerson, who added that the administration was weighing the effect of sanctions on the Venezuelan people -- and whether they would quickly produce the desired result.
"Because not doing anything to bring this to an end is also asking the Venezuelan people to suffer for a much longer time," he said.
It's also a complex business equation. The U.S. sends light crude oil to Venezuela, which has heavy crude. The two get mixed together in Venezuela and shipped back to the United States.
Banning cheap imports from Venezuela would force U.S. refineries to buy elsewhere, and that could push up gas prices.
"We're looking at how to mitigate... the impacts on U.S. business interests," said Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil.
Analysts say U.S. oil sanctions could completely cripple the Venezuelan economy.
-- Patrick Gillespie and Claudia Dominguez contributed to this article.
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