Thousands of government supporters jammed into a plaza Sunday to protest U.S. sanctions against Venezuela's state oil company, the latest in a series of demonstrations encouraged by President Hugo Chávez to invoke nationalist sentiments.
Chávez backers waving Venezuelans flags and chanting, "The people, united, will never be defeated!" marched from several points throughout the capital and converged on a downtown plaza where they listened to officials condemn the sanctions against Petroleos de Venezuela SA, known as PDVSA.
"Nobody messes with Venezuela," Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez told the crowd. "Venezuela must be respected."
Ramirez has said shipments of heavy crude to PDVSA's U.S.-based subsidiaries will continue, but the company cannot guarantee shipments to nonaffiliated private oil companies.
Under the sanctions, PDVSA will be barred from any U.S. government contracts, U.S. import-export financing, and export licenses for sensitive technology. But it will not be banned from selling oil to the United States or dealing with its U.S. subsidiaries.
Venezuela is one of the United States' main suppliers of petroleum, and the U.S. is the South American country's chief oil buyer.
Under Chávez, PDVSA has sought to diversify its clientele, exporting more to China and other countries. Ramirez has hinted the oil company could seek to accelerate those initiatives to further reduce Venezuela's dependence on the United States.
President Barack Obama's administration slapped sanctions on PDVSA and six other companies from other countries for doing business with Iran. The State Department said PDVSA delivered at least two cargoes of refined petroleum products worth about $50 million to Iran between December and March.
Chávez's opponents have also criticized the sanctions, but Chávez and his supporters have portrayed them as anti-patriotic U.S. flunkies who applaud the measures.
"They are pawns of the empire," said protester Edgar Torres, using a term Chávez and his supporters often employ to describe the U.S. "They don't care about our country."
Chávez's leftist-oriented government relies heavily on PDVSA's annual revenues of about $4 billion to fund its social programs for the country's poor.
Industry analysts say the sanctions probably won't significantly cut into PDVSA's business because Washington is not preventing the company from selling crude to the United States or through Citgo, its U.S. subsidiary.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.