International review Investigation

Venezuelan government arrested ex-Oil Ministers and PDVSA executives on corruption charges

President President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, left, and Nelson Martínez, then the oil and mining minister, in Caracas in January. Mr. Martínez was arrested on Thursday. Source: Juan Barreto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

Venezuela Arrests 2 Former Oil Officials, Claiming Corruption

This material belongs to: The New York Times.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Masked government agents stormed the homes of two former top officials of Venezuela’s state oil company and arrested them on Thursday, a move that the prosecutor heralded as a blow against corruption but that others saw as a political purge to strengthen the country’s president.

The accused men, Nelson Martínez and Eulogio del Pino, are the highest-level officials detained in a string of arrests that have shaken the country’s troubled oil giant, Petróleos de Venezuela, and its United States refiner, CitgoMore than 50 people so far have been detained in a widening net of charges from corruption to sabotage.

Mr. Martínez, a former oil minister who led the oil company until this week, was detained early Thursday and charged with seeking debt refinancing contracts without getting government approval, said Tarek William Saab, the Venezuelan attorney general.

Mr. Del Pino, Mr. Martínez’s predecessor, was arrested on a list of charges that included falsifying production figures and sabotage that resulted in millions of dollars in lost revenues, Mr. Saab said.

Mr. Saab described the two men as running “a cartel” that he said “bit by bit was delivering blows to the oil industry and causing national damage.”

In a video posted on Mr. Del Pino’s Twitter account and apparently recorded before his arrest, he said he had been the victim of an unjustified attack.

Corruption at Venezuela’s state oil company has never been a secret, analysts say. What has changed, many argue, are the fortunes of President Nicolás Maduro, who is seeking to remain in power despite two years of food and medicine shortages and a looming, potentially catastrophic, default on its foreign debt.

“Why the focus on this so suddenly?” said David Smilde, a political-science professor who studies Venezuela at Tulane University. “There’s a need to find a scapegoat for the country’s economic crisis.”

Eulogio del Pino, center, a former Venezuelan oil minister, at a meeting in Algeria in 2016. He was arrested on Thursday. Source: Sidali Djarboub/Associated Press.

The Venezuelan government is almost entirely dependent on oil revenues for income, and years of price declines combined with a production collapse at the company has taken a heavy toll.

Now Petróleos de Venezuela, known as Pdvsa, is effectively in default on its $26.5 billion in unsecured bonds, and it faces claims of $60 billion in missed payments from contractors and service companies that drill and maintain its fields. Sanctions by the Trump administration are blocking the flow of money to Pdvsa. A disorderly default could prompt bondholders to seize the assets of Citgo.

Amid the turmoil, Mr. Maduro appointed Manuel Quevedo, a military general, to lead Pdvsa this week. But far from setting the stage for a turnaround for the company, skeptics said, the move may deepen the company’s woes as it cements the allegiance of the armed forces to Mr. Maduro, allowing the military to profit from Pdvsa’s petrodollars.

“Maduro is focused on the challenges of survival,” said Francisco J. Monaldi, a Venezuelan energy expert at Rice University. “This is not a move you make to calm the international markets that Pdvsa will need to reverse the collapse.”

Some said the arrest of Mr. Del Pino in particular seemed to be motivated by politics.

Mr. Del Pino, like many of the Pdvsa officials arrested recently, was close to Rafael Ramírez, another former top official of the oil company, who has publicly criticized Mr. Maduro this year from his post as Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that Mr. Ramírez had been stripped of his post. The government did not confirm the ambassador’s status.

“Maduro wants to send a message that there’s no room for political debate,” Mr. Smilde said.

Mr. Monaldi said that while the company had not been transparent during the tenures of Mr. Del Pino or Mr. Martínez, transgressions such as filing inflated production figures were most likely ordered by the government itself to improve its balance sheet.

“It’s largely a political vendetta,” he said of the charges.

It was certainly a change of fortunes for the two men, whom Mr. Maduro praised on television in August when he named them to their positions. “Two cleanup hitters ready for the battle,” Mr. Maduro said, using a baseball reference.

Mr. Del Pino smiled and Mr. Martínez clapped.

Venezuela arrests top oil officials in corruption probe

This material belongs to: The Washington Post.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan authorities on Thursday arrested two former top officials in a widening corruption probe into the state-run oil industry that some see as an attempt by President Nicolas Maduro to consolidate power within his socialist party ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

Former Oil Minister Eulogio del Pino and Nestor Martinez, ex-president of state oil company PDVSA, were arrested just four days after being removed by Maduro in a surprise cabinet shake-up. Both are accused of embezzling state funds, conspiracy and money laundering among other charges, Tarek William Saab, who took over as chief prosecutor following the ousting of one of Maduro’s top critics, said at a press conference in Caracas.

As Saab was speaking, footage of the arrests was broadcast on state TV. In one sequence, military intelligence agents wearing ski masks with assault rifles drawn knock on the residence of Del Pino, who calmly opens the door and consents to being handcuffed while dressed in a jersey of Venezuela’s national soccer team.

In a pre-recorded video released on social media after his arrest, Del Pino said he was the victim of an unjustified attack.

“I hope this revolution gives me the right to a legitimate defense,” he said in the outdoor recording as birds chirped in the background.

Saab said the arrests fulfill a government pledge to assure Venezuela’s vast oil wealth is spent on the poor and isn’t pilfered by corrupt officials with mansions and yachts in the U.S. While corruption in the country sitting atop the world’s largest oil reserves has long been rampant, officials are rarely held accountable — a major irritant to Venezuelans now struggling to eat three meals a day amid widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation.

“This shouldn’t be seen as an isolated act,” said Saab, adding that 15 other PDVSA managers and officials tied to the oil probe had been arrested in the past 24 hours and a total of 65 since August. They include six executives of PDVSA’s Houston-based subsidiary Citgo, five of whom hold American passports.

“What we’re doing will boost the people’s morale,” he added.

Del Pino and Martinez, both U.S.-educated industry veterans, were replaced Sunday by a high-ranking general with no experience in an oil industry that’s the source of virtually all of Venezuela’s foreign currency earnings.

Specifically, Saab accused Martinez of acting improperly and against Venezuela’s national interests by negotiating a debt-financing deal when he headed PDVSA subsidiary Citgo that offered part ownership of the Houston-based company subsidiary as collateral.

Del Pino allegedly profited from and helped doctor production figures in a joint Russian-Venezuelan oil field. Saab said the alleged scam deprived the Venezuelan state of more than $500 million in revenue between 2015 and 2017.

Both men are also proteges of former oil czar Rafael Ramirez, who headed PDVSA and served as oil minister for a decade until becoming Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations in 2014.

In a rare display of divisions in the ruling socialist party, Ramirez has increasingly spoken out against Maduro’s handling of the economy, even while staring down public attacks from prominent government loyalists. On Wednesday, he was reportedly fired from his U.N. post, although nobody in the government has confirmed his dismissal.

The mission’s office said he could not be reached for comment and the U.N. said Thursday it hadn’t been notified of any change in Venezuela’s representation.

“I’m disappointed that no type of constructive criticism is allowed, and also the fact that some comrades who know me well are victims of the right-wing’s manipulations,” he wrote in an essay titled “Stepping Firmly: Is it ethical to remain silent?” published Sunday on the Aporrea website, a forum for Venezuelan leftists.

Ramirez, who was close to the late Hugo Chavez but never part of his successor’s inner circle, is believed to be the ultimate target of the PDVSA housecleaning as well as an ongoing probe in the U.S. that has led to the arrest of more than 10 individuals for paying bribes and kickbacks, including two former close aides to Ramirez arrested last month in Spain.

Maduro’s anti-corruption crackdown may provide him with a needed boost and silence internal criticism ahead of presidential elections, said David Smilde, a Tulane University sociologist.

Vice President Tareck El Aissami said on Wednesday that he hoped that Maduro will be re-elected in 2018, the clearest sign yet that the former bus driver will seek another term despite the deepening economic crisis.

Speculation has been rising that Maduro may call elections for as early as March to take advantage of disarray within the opposition, which has been struggling to come up with a strategy to confront the president’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

“Ramirez was a dissenting voice and that’s not something Maduro wants in 2018,” said Smilde, who has lived on and off in Venezuela for more than two decades. “When you purge these once very powerful folks at PDVSA, you’re sending a strong message that you want everyone on board and that this isn’t the time for reflection and debate.”

Still, Smilde said it’s a high-risk strategy for Maduro, who is under increasing international pressure as well as U.S. financial sanctions. Should Ramirez decide to turn to U.S. authorities for protection, as many expect, he could likely provide incriminating testimony on corruption at the highest levels of the system.

“Ramirez has compromising information too,” said Smilde. “That’s what has protected him until now.”