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On March 5, a Venezuelan congressman, Adel El Zabayar with Mr. Chavezs party, told reporters that PDVSA is planning a third shipment.

Experts say Washington could retaliate against Venezuela - which also owns the Texas-based company Citgo and supplies crude oil to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries - by restricting PDVSA’s access to American financial institutions.

That, however, could have a negative impact on Citgo and ultimately spell trouble at the gas pumps, where the price of a gallon of gas is already in the $4 range.

Venezuela represents 8 percent of U.S. imports, so any action against it could drive up gas prices,” said Boris Segura, a Latin American analyst for Nomura Securities.

A Treasury Department spokesperson said the department does not comment on possible enforcement actions.

Chavez fears no sanctions

Last year, Washington slapped partial sanctions on PDVSA for supplying fuel products to Iran. Those measures did not restrict Venezuelan oil exports to the U.S. or affect Citgo in any way.

“[President Hugo] Chavez does not fear sanctions and, as a matter of fact, might actually be tempting them for his own gain,” said Mr. Burelli.

Mr. Chavez, currently facing a potentially life-threatening recurrence of cancer, is in a tough political presidential re-election campaign against an increasingly popular opponent, Henrique Capriles. The election is slated for October.

“He will use any position Washington takes against him to make it seem like he isn’t fighting anybody but the U.S., and that the [domestic political] opposition is just a lackey,” Mr. Burelli said.

Eddie Ramirez, another former director of PDVSA, added: “I believe it is preferable that the U.S. not apply sanctions on PDVSA right now because Chavez will blame it for trying to strangle Venezuela.”

The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee voted on March 7 to approve the Syria Freedom Support Act, which would sanction those who sell or provide to Syria refined petroleum products worth more than $1 million.

Some influential voices on Capitol Hill worry Mr. Chavez might take his Middle East sympathies beyond rhetoric and fuel aide.

Venezuela, in sympathy with its friend Iran, could cut off its oil exports to the United States or take other steps to disrupt oil supplies,” Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, wrote in a Miami Herald newspaper editorial last month.

He called on President Obama to warn Mr. Chavez that any such move with Iran would be viewed as a threat to U.S. national interests.

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