Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, shown at a press conference in Caracas last month, has insisted his country can pay off its massive debt

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela hosted a brief meeting of creditors on Monday as the struggling yet oil-rich country sought to stave off a default seen as inevitable by experts, while the EU stepped up the pressure with new sanctions on Caracas.

However, the 25-minute closed-door gathering in a government building across from the presidential palace ended with no agreement and no plan broached, several participants said. Another meeting was promised, but no date was given.

Vice President Tareck El Aissami chaired the meeting, during which he read a statement blaming US sanctions for delays to Venezuela’s debt repayments.

His presence was problematic for some, as the US has designated him a drug kingpin with whom US entities are barred from dealing.

“They said they are going to form working groups to evaluate short- and mid-term debt-renegotiation proposals,” Geronimo Mansutti, from the Rendivalores brokerage, told AFP.

“But they didn’t give any concrete details on their plans, on what they hope to get.”

He said there had been around 300 investors or their representatives at the meeting.

Venezuelan authorities had said 414 creditors representing 91 percent of its traded debt had responded to President Nicolas Maduro’s invitation to attend.

Maduro said early this month he was seeking a refinancing and restructuring of Venezuela’s debt, which is estimated at $150 billion, including bonds issued by the government and state oil company PDVSA as well as direct loans from China and Russia.

The country has less than $10 billion left in hard-currency reserves.

The financial news agency Bloomberg said that none of the foreign investors it had contacted last week planned to travel to Caracas.

About 70 percent of Venezuelan bondholders are North American, according to government figures.

Major credit rating agencies say that default on Venezuela’s debt will happen, though they don’t know precisely when.

The country has repayments of $1.4 billion to make before the end of the year, and another $8 billion next year.

- Decision postponed in New York -

Venezuelan economist Luis Vicente Leon said Maduro called the creditors’ meeting to try to get them to pressure the US government to allow a restructing to go ahead, despite a ban on US entities buying new Venezuelan debt.

A committee of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) is already weighing whether holders of PDVSA debt with default insurance – credit default swaps – can collect payment.

The Maduro government had said it would make a $1.2 billion payment on a PDVSA bond on November 2, but it was unclear if the funds ever reached creditors.

The so-called Determinations Committee for the Americas, comprised of 15 financial firms, met in New York following an initial gathering last Friday, “to discuss whether a Failure to Pay Credit Event had occurred” with respect to PDVSA, according to the ISDA.

It ended up deciding to again postpone a decision until Tuesday.

Tightening the squeeze on Maduro was the European Union’s announcement of sanctions, including an embargo on arms and equipment that could be used for political repression.

Restrictions include a prohibition on US entities buying any new Venezuela debt issues – usually a required step in any restructuring.

- Maduro defiant -

Late Sunday, Maduro struck a defiant tone, insisting that his country would “never” default and pointing to ongoing negotiations with China and Russia.

But his options are very limited.

A default can be declared in several ways: by the major ratings agencies, big debt-holders or by the government itself.

The rating agencies all forecast a Venezuelan default as inevitable, but differ on when it might occur

News on Friday that a state-owned utility, Electricidad de Venezuela, failed to make a $650 million payment within a one-month grace period bolstered creditors’ wariness that a default was unfolding.

As rough as the ride has been regarding debt, Maduro is also being buffeted by international accusations that he is acting as an autocrat – stomping on democracy by marginalizing the opposition, which controls the parliament, and stifling independent media.

- US criticism -

Adding to the political pressure against Maduro, the UN Security Council met on Venezuela at the behest of the United States.

During the informal session, US Ambassador Nikki Haley slammed Venezuela as an “increasingly violent narco-state” that poses a threat to world security.

Permanent council members Russia and China boycotted the meeting, as did non-permanent members Bolivia and Egypt.

Venezuela’s envoy to the UN, Rafael Ramirez, called the meeting “illegal.”

“This is a hostile act by the United States and clearly an act of interference,” he said.