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 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.

It was unclear, though, what could come out of the gathering of foreign bondholders, which Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro early this month insisted would try to set the scene for a “refinancing and “restructuring” of his country’s traded debt.

No plan was circulated beforehand, and who actually showed up was not immediately known.

The restructuring bid is being led by Vice President Tareck El Aissami, whom US entities are barred from dealing with under sanctions designating him a drug kingpin.

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

A negative or inconclusive result could speed the country’s descent on a slippery slope towards a default that might see slighted creditors trying to grab assets abroad belonging to Venezuela and its state oil company PDVSA.

Major credit rating agencies say that default on Venezuela’s debt pile – estimated at $150 billion, including some $60 billion in traded paper as well as loans picked up by China and Russia – will happen, though they don’t know precisely when.

- In New York, a decision postponed -

A committee of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) is weighing whether those 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 on Monday, 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.

While the committee “received additional information in a submission on Monday,” it is still considering PDVSA’s status, the ISDA said.

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

They follow successive rounds of sanctions on Caracas by Washington, which has labeled Maduro a “dictator.” 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 in remarks carried on state television that his country would “never” default and pointed to ongoing negotiations with China and Russia.

But with his country’s hard-currency reserves now whittled down to less than $10 billion, 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.

- UN meeting too -

In announcing its own sanctions on Monday, the EU said the new measures were aimed at “underscoring its concerns with the situation in the country.”

The EU said it would not recognize Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, a chamber of loyalists appointed by Maduro in August to usurp parliamentary powers, saying its creation had “further eroded the democratic and independent institutions.”

Claudio Salerno, Venezuela’s ambassador to the EU, said in imposing sanctions, the bloc was “bowing to the call of the head of the empire” – US President Donald Trump. She added that Venezuela sees itself as a “victim.”

Adding to the political pressure against Maduro, the UN Security Council met Monday on Venezuela – talks called by the United States.

“As the Venezuelan economy continues to crumble, the situation will likely only worsen especially as the country is at risk of defaulting on its debt,” the US delegation said in a document calling the meeting.