MADRID - The Spanish government's ambiguous relationship with Venezuela - and the possibility of U.S. economic sanctions stemming from that relationship - has emerged as an issue in the run-up to legislative elections this weekend.
In a candidates' debate Monday night, centrist candidate Albert Rivera accused Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of "always being last in line and footdragging" on Venezuela. Rightist VOX party leader Santiago Abascal, meanwhile, accused the Socialists of jeopardizing Spain's important relations with the United States.
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The accusations follow published reports that the United States is contemplating sanctions to punish Spain for its failure to take tougher action against the Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro, which Washington is seeking to isolate and ultimately unseat.
Bloomberg last week quoted unnamed U.S. senior officials saying that sanctions were in the initial stages of planning following Treasury Department investigations of transactions involving Spain's central bank that violated U.S. restrictions on financial dealings with Venezuela.
Spain's foreign ministry has told VOA it has not been notified by the U.S. State or Treasury departments about any planned sanctions. Speaking from Brussels on Friday morning, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell dismissed the reports as "rumors based on nothing."
But U.S. President Donald Trump, asked the same day about the possibility of sanctions by the Spanish news agency EFE, said, "We shall see. We shall see."
According to Bloomberg, no decision will be made until after the Spanish election on Sunday, which could bring to power center-right parties that favor a tougher policy against Venezuela.
The United States and Spain are traditional allies, bound through high volumes of bilateral trade and investment, and by defense treaties providing strategic military bases for American forces on Spanish territory. But disagreements over Venezuela, Cuba and renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran have strained the relationship since Sanchez came to office a year and a half ago.
Sanchez has shown little enthusiasm for the Trump administration's efforts to oust Maduro, leading to what some analysts call a "dual approach" that has often annoyed Washington. He took two weeks to back U.S. calls to recognize parliamentary leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate president in February, despite repeated pleas by top U.S. diplomats. Fifty other countries acted more quickly.
Spain has given Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez asylum at its embassy in Caracas since he led a U.S.-backed attempt to topple Maduro in April, but has blocked his access to the media while urging the opposition to enter into EU-sponsored talks with the Venezuelan government.
Spain is highly sensitive on the issue of sanctions. Major Spanish companies, including one of its largest banks, still are represented in Venezuela, a former colony where an expatriate community of about 200,000 dual nationals reside.
Spain's oil company Repsol has been trying to reduce its Venezuelan exposure since entering into talks with the U.S. State Department earlier this year.
But Borrell has blocked the EU from implementing broad economic sanctions against Venezuela, announcing some months ago that he would recommend limiting measures to individual members of Maduro's government. Just last week he agreed at a foreign ministers' meeting to expand the EU blacklist of Venezuelan officials to 25 in order to include some newly indicted drug traffickers and human rights violators denounced by the U.N.
Ties to Venezuela
Spanish officials say that they have cooperated with U.S. investigations into money laundering by corrupt Venezuelan officials, including a former head of the national electrical company who was arrested in Spain and extradited to the U.S. last year.
But Spanish courts recently refused to turn over former Venezuelan spy chief Hugo Carvajal, who is wanted by U.S. authorities on charges of smuggling cocaine through a vast drug-trafficking network involving Colombian guerrilla groups and Mexican cartels. Carvajal's trial revealed that he was a double agent for Spain's intelligence service.
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"Elements of the Socialist party are deeply compromised with the regime in Venezuela," said Ramon Peralta, a professor of international law at Madrid's Complutense University, who also teaches courses at several Latin American universities.
Former Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero sold eight navy frigates to Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and more recently has become an informal adviser to the Venezuelan government. A diplomat who served as his ambassador to Venezuela, Raul Morodo, has been investigated for corrupt dealings with Venezuela's national oil company PDVSA, which wanted to establish an international headquarters in Madrid.