Archive for the ‘Economic Sanctions’ Category


Sep

10

Sen. Landrieu Attempts to Clarify the Record … But Doesn’t


Posted by at 8:28 pm on September 10, 2014
Category: Economic SanctionsOFACSDN ListVenezuela

Sen. Landrieu [Official Portrait, Public Domain]

On Sunday, in Lafayette, LA, The Advertiser printed an opinion from Sen. Mary Landrieu entitled, “Sanctions, as written, will hurt La. workers.”  While we hoped Sen. Landrieu was writing to clarify the record in response to our post last week, she was writing instead to respond to an earlier opinion in The Advertiser written by Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Bill Cassidy.

Sen. Landrieu began by referring to the Lake Charles, LA oil refinery as “owned by Citgo, a Venezuelan company with a strong and respected reputation in Louisiana.”  Citgo, however, is quite clearly a U.S. company, founded and incorporated in the United States over a hundred years ago.  It became wholly owned U.S. subsidiary of Petróleos de Venezuela, the Venezuelan national oil company, in 1990, but remained a U.S. company.  The hawkish view on U.S. sanctions is, of course, that Citgo, even though a U.S. company employing U.S. persons, is not immune from the conduct of its foreign parent if, in this case, Petróleos de Venezuela’s conduct were found to be at variance with U.S. economic sanctions and was added to the SDN List, its subsidiary Citgo would be equally blocked and unable to employ U.S. workers.

In her opinion, Sen. Landrieu continued to defend her opposition to the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 because she believed that “the legislation as written was too vague” and “will continue to oppose it unless the language of this resolution makes crystal clear that there will be no threat to the [Lake Charles] refinery.”  But, as we pointed out last week, Sen. Landrieu’s references to amending the Act have led to no clear (crystal or otherwise) suggestions on how to do so.  We think we can help her out.

The Act, like other sanctions bills, already permits the President to waive the application of sanctions against a person if he determines that such waiver is necessary for the “national security interests of the United States.”  The amendment we recommend to Sen. Landrieu is to rewrite the waiver in Section 5(c)(1) to read, “The President may waive the application of sanctions under subsection (b) with respect to a person if the President determines that such a waiver is in the national security or economic interests of the United States.”  By adding simply “or economic” to the waiver condition, the President has another avenue to defend not imposing sanctions against otherwise sanctionable foreign persons.  Again, as we pointed out last week, the President would not take lightly a decision to block Citgo’s assets in Louisiana or anywhere else in United States.  Congress, moreover, would be hard-pressed to oppose a waiver if the President were able to show that imposing sanctions would have tremendous economic ramifications.

If Sen. Landrieu wants to take the position that U.S. economic sanctions against human rights violators can’t come with a cost that significantly harms the U.S. economy, there is a way to protect that interest.  Whether or not her position wins the day on the Senate floor, we think the only practical way to do so is to give the President more discretion in how he may choose not to impose sanctions.  A tidy addition of the two words “or economic” should do the trick and put to bed another odd episode of “How a Bill Becomes a Law.”

 

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Sep

6

Bizarre Sanctions Battle Brews in the Bayou


Posted by at 9:34 am on September 6, 2014
Category: Economic SanctionsOFACSanctionsSDN ListVenezuela

By User:Lunarsurface (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACitgo_sign_and_Yawkey_way.jpg

With the calendar turning to September, Sen. Mary Landrieu will be displayed prominently in election media coverage as an incumbent in the proverbial hot seat.  The most intriguing fodder her opponents have used against her has been her curious opposition to the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014.  The House passed its version by voice vote in May, but the Act has stalled in the Senate principally because Landrieu’s opposition has derailed others from bringing the Act to vote through unanimous consent.

The Act includes sanctions against individuals and entities associated with the Venezuelan government that the President determines committed, directed or “materially assisted, sponsored, or provided significant … support for” those who have committed or directed human rights abuses against anti-government protestors in that country.  Like many similar sanctions bills, Congress would give the President wide discretion in determining whether persons meet standards like “materially assisted” or provided “significant” support.  The Act would certainly not require the President to designate any company affiliated with the Venezuelan government as an SDN and, as a result, block their U.S. assets.

Sen. Landrieu, however, has opposed the bill out of fear that 2,000 workers at a Citgo oil refinery in Louisiana may be at jeopardy.  She has said that “once a simple sentence that protects these hard working Louisianans is added to the bill, I will be happy to support the legislation.”  So, what would Sen. Landrieu’s “simple sentence” look like?  It can’t possibly be a carve out for 2,000 workers at a Louisiana Citgo refinery; then every member of Congress with a Citgo presence in their state would want similar protection for their constituents.  It can’t possibly be a carve out to protect any U.S. companies owned by a Venezuelan parent, like Citgo is; then the sanctions would be bereft of any heft to affect possible change in Venezuela.

This week, Sen. Marco Rubio entered the fray in a letter to Sen. Harry Reid to ensure the Act is brought to the Senate floor for a vote over Sen. Landrieu’s opposition.  In his letter, Sen. Rubio described the Act as “target[ing] individuals only and pose[] no threat to American jobs or Venezuelan firms.”  Not so fast, Marco, the Act includes sanctions against “persons.”  Someone forgot to tell Sen. Rubio that every OFAC sanctions regime defines persons to mean individuals and entities.  Someone also forgot to tell him about the three Citgo storage facilities, hundreds of gas stations and thousands of affiliated jobs the company has in Florida.

One upshot of this situation is that members of Congress don’t understand how U.S. economic sanctions work.  It is odd that Sen. Landrieu has stuck her political neck out in a situation where the President would be the one under the Act who would have to designate Petróleos de Venezuela, Citgo’s Venezuelan parent, as an SDN if he determined it met the conditions under the Act.  Doing so would not be a decision taken lightly and would have repercussions beyond just Louisiana (ask any Boston Red Sox fan about what would happen to the Citgo sign above left field).  It is also odd that Sen. Rubio would put his name to a letter that declares no U.S. jobs would be threatened by these sanctions.  The fact is that threat remains under the Act, no matter how unlikely, and the President, not Congress, would be in control of imposing sanctions.

A simple moral to this story is a classroom adage: Read Carefully and Think Critically.  Here’s hoping politicians start doing a little bit more of both.

Clif adds: In my somewhat more cynical view, the likelihood that members of Congress will ever “Read Carefully and Think Critically” is exactly equal to the likelihood that I will ever debut as Wotan in a production of The Ring Cycle at the Met.

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Aug

4

The Auto Sound and the OFAC Fury


Posted by and at 3:30 pm on August 4, 2014
Category: Economic SanctionsIran SanctionsOFACSanctions

Soundstream Audio Car http://www.soundstream.com/images/intl-team/pic/england/england/images/new/UK%20(1).jpg [Fair Use - Soundstream is Epsilon sub]

OFAC announced that it assessed a $4,073,000 penalty against California-based Epsilon Electronics Inc.  Epsilon sells, among other things, audio and video equipment for cars (think of any number of MTV auto-improvement shows).  OFAC alleged that over an almost four-year period from 2008 to 2012, Epsilon sold such equipment valued at over $3.4 million to a UAE company, Asra International Corporation LLC, that “reexports most, if not all, of its products to Iran and has offices in Tehran.”  What is notable about the Epsilon penalty is the rare occurrence that OFAC described sanctions violation as “egregious.”

We have noted from time to time the confusion in OFAC enforcement announcements that describe “non-egregious” cases that appear on the facts provided to be anything but.  But now with Epsilon, we have precedent for what it takes to push OFAC over the limit.  So, what did Epsilon do to warrant the branding of an egregious offender?

Included in OFAC’s allegations were Epsilon’s attempts “to hide or purposely obfuscate its sales to Iran, when it changed a Web site to remove a photo gallery of Epsilon’s products that was labeled ‘Iran’” and “to mislead OFAC by providing false information in its subpoena responses and other letters to OFAC.”  It also doesn’t help that, as OFAC points out, Asra’s website indicated that it only distributed products to Iran (Asra’s website is curiously now under construction).

But what OFAC explicitly identified as its egregious benchmark was violations occurring after OFAC sent a cautionary letter to Epsilon in 2012.  After receiving the letter, OFAC alleged that Epsilon issued five invoices to Asra for products that Epsilon knew or had reason to know were intended for Asra’s resale in Iran.

Whatever the reason for Epsilon’s actions, even if a back-office mishap, the moral of the story is to treat OFAC’s cautioning not as a mere warning but as a pronouncement that OFAC is watching and there is a need to get your house in order.  A decision to continue with business as usual comes at a substantial risk unless a company can satisfy itself that what it is doing does not violate U.S. law.  That may be a tall order when OFAC has already informed you that it suspects violations have occurred.

A debate over OFAC’s adjectival use of “egregious” and “non-egregious” is not a matter of semantics.  Epsilon sold over $3.4 million worth of merchandise and now will be forced to pay that amount and over half a million more to the U.S. Government.  So, when OFAC gives you a yellow light, it’s best to slow down rather than speed up because OFAC has traffic cameras everywhere and your ticket will be in the mail.

Clif adds:  Another thing that accounts for OFAC’s fury and the mega-fine is that Epsilon had the temerity to challenge OFAC and file a response challenging OFAC’s Pre-Penalty Notice.  OFAC rejected Epsilon’s arguments summarily in the Penalty Notice, declining to reduce the proposed penalty by even a nickel.   Suffice it to say, OFAC was not amused by the extra work involved in responding to Epsilon’s objections.

The scarcely concealed ire by OFAC obscures an important issue.  What is at issue here are subwoofers and amplifiers used to pimp out cars in Iran, something that no doubt irks the mullahs and the Iranian government (presumably even more than it irks OFAC) as young Iranians cruise down the street blaring “Swagga Like Us.”   Whatever one may think of such behavior, one thing is certain: playing loud music in a car will not under any circumstances enrich uranium or detonate a nuclear device. Certainly Epsilon deserved a fine here but OFAC should have imposed one more in accord with subwoofers than centrifuges.

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Jul

24

Mugabe’s Scottish Castle in the Sky


Posted by at 6:16 pm on July 24, 2014
Category: Economic SanctionsOFACSanctionsZimbabwe Sanctions

By User:Bigwikiaal (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEilan_Donan_Castle%2C_Scotland_2013-09-12_12-29.jpg

The Herald, a Mugabe mouthpiece owned by the Zimbabwean government, recently criticized former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in two articles for reported comments the UK made to justify the imposition of sanctions against Zimbabwe.  Referring to “illegal sanctions,” The Herald cited an article in the “Journal of African Studies” that quoted former South African president Thabo Mbeki as saying that UK officials told him, presumably sometime in the early 2000s, that Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe owned a Scottish castle and had UK bank accounts that the UK intended to freeze, only to allegedly tell Mbeki later that the UK could not locate the Scottish castle or the accounts but still intended to impose sanctions in any event. (Perhaps the UK momentarily confused Mugabe with Idi Amin who once offered to be the King of Scotland.)

The article in question appeared in the June 2014 edition of the Journal of Southern African Studies and was by Blessing-Miles Tendi a frequent writer on UK-Zimbabwe relations and lecturer at Oxford.  Professor Tendi did in fact cite to a discussion he had with Mbeki in 2011, during which Mbeki said that “Britain” and “Tony’s people” made such statements about Mugabe’s assets and that the British later admitted to finding no castle in Scotland or Mugabe accounts in the UK.  Tendi went on to describe a UK decision to freeze Mugabe’s assets as “devoid of rationality” inasmuch as the UK knew these assets did not exist.  (Interestingly, Tendi also asserts that Mbeki claims that British plans to invade Zimbabwe were thwarted by Mbeki’s decision not to let Britain use South Africa as a staging point for the invasion.)

Tendi and The Herald are misinformed about the UK sanctions.  In addition to freezing any current or future Mugabe’s assets in the UK, the sanctions also prohibit anyone from making any economic resources available to Mugabe or his co-sanctioned cronies.  If the UK believed that Zimbabwe was engaged in human rights abuses and suppression of democracy, as most countries and international organizations still believe, it would not be “devoid of rationality” to conclude that prohibiting financial assistance and freezing future assets are warranted to end such abuses and suppression.

Although Tendi and The Herald are misinformed as to the scope of UK economic sanctions law, the more important take-away from this curious vignette is the allegation that a country like the UK may have hastily taken to other countries its case for sanctions, even in small part, based on its own misinformation.  Imposing economic sanctions on identified targets are swift government decisions with immediate effects that are many times based on information that the target itself can’t readily confirm or deny.  The only administrative due process afforded to a foreign sanctions target in the United States is an “administrative reconsideration” of OFAC’s decision by … OFAC.  As we noted earlier this year, OFAC reconsiderations are no easy task and some petitioners are taking claims to U.S. courts to obtain removal from the SDN list.  Although Mugabe does not have a strong case for reconsideration and not likely to make one, other sanctions targets may, and should at least try, if the circumstances warrant.

 

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Jul

2

OFAC Gores Red Bull for Skateboarding in Havana


Posted by and at 6:45 pm on July 2, 2014
Category: Cuba SanctionsEconomic SanctionsOFACSanctions

Ryan Scheckler Skateboards in Havana via http://www.redbull.com/cs/Satellite/en_INT/Gallery/Ryan-Sheckler-shreds-Cuba-and-Panama-021242761792131#/image-12 [Fair Use]

Last Friday, OFAC announced that Red Bull North America, Inc. (“RBNA” or, when we’re feeling informal, “Red Bull”) agreed to pay $89,775 to settle allegations that “seven representatives” of RBNA traveled to Cuba in order to “film a documentary” in 2009 without OFAC authorization but with the approval of RBNA’s “management.”  RBNA is the U.S. subsidiary of Red Bull GmbH, the Austrian elder statesman of excessively caffeinated energy drinks.  Although OFAC provided no details about the film itself, it is likely a 2009 documentary, described by Red Bull here, which the company made about Ryan Sheckler skateboarding in Havana.  Apparently there is no place left in the world that is safe from skateboarders other than, perhaps, some interior stretches of Antarctica.

Of course, there is a general license for journalistic activities in Cuba, which would seem to cover making documentaries, as opposed to, say, filming Transfomers LVIII: The Final (And We Really, Really Mean It This Time) Apocalypse.  But OFAC’s general license is restricted to “persons regularly employed as journalists by a news reporting organization.”  As we’ve noted before OFAC has not applied this limitation in a consistent fashion, suggesting that Michael Moore wasn’t a journalist but Charlize Theron was. Although Red Bull seems quite active in the documentary business, OFAC apparently viewed them as simply a commercial marketing endeavor in a country where Red Bull is undoubtedly sold.  In fact, judging from the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series event held in Havana this May, a good amount of Red Bull is being consumed in Cuba.

In considering the penalty amount, OFAC said it determined and took into account that “RBNA did not voluntarily self-disclose” and that “RBNA had prior knowledge of U.S. sanctions on Cuba and took steps to conceal the transactions.”  Of course, we don’t quite understand how you conceal a documentary, particularly where Red Bull posted extensive information about it on the Internet, which is where OFAC likely discovered this transaction. On the other side of the equation, OFAC cited  RBNA’s institution of an OFAC compliance program, no other sanctions violation from 2004 to 2009 and the “non-egregious” nature of the violation.

We have over the past few years called attention to the confusion and lack of information in OFAC’s enforcement action announcements.  Last April, we highlighted what we thought was one of the more egregious “non-egregious” settlements that OFAC has announced.   The latest settlement with RBNA, furthers the confusion by imposing a fine on the low scale even after OFAC finds, albeit wrongly, that Red Bull concealed the documentary.

While OFAC makes up for its small-ish RBNA fine in its hefty enforcements against banks (à la the almost $1 billion settlement OFAC reached with BNP Paribas this week), most U.S. companies’ dealings with Cuba are going to be more on par with isolated occurrences like the one involving RBNA.  In the end, the RBNA settlement is good news for RBNA, its Red Bull parent and any other U.S. company in a similar situation.  If a U.S. company ever finds itself in the future before OFAC in an isolated situation like RBNA, the first thing to do is to pull out RBNA’s settlement announcement and try negotiating from there.

 

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