Venezuela’s oil minister resigns amid PDVSA corruption probe

Venezuela’s oil minister has resigned amid a widening corruption probe into Petróleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), the state oil company.

Tareck El Aissami, a longtime insider of the authoritarian government of Nicolás Maduro, announced his resignation on Twitter on Monday afternoon.

“In light of the investigations that have begun about serious occurrences of corruption at PDVSA, I have taken the decision to present my resignation as Minister of Petroleum, with the intent to support, accompany and totally back this process,” El Aissami wrote.

A towering figure in chavismo — the ruling ideology embodied by the late former president Hugo Chávez and his so-called Bolivarian revolution — El Aissami had been oil minister since 2020. In 2017, he was placed under sanctions by the US Treasury, accused of connections to drug trafficking. He has repeatedly denied the allegations and could not be reached for comment on Monday evening.

El Aissami previously held posts as interior minister and as governor of Aragua state. He oversaw negotiations that led to Chevron receiving a licence last year from the US Office of Foreign Assets Control to restart its operations in Venezuela.

The resignation follows a spate of arrests in a corruption investigation related to the South American country’s oil sector. At the weekend, police arrested a mayor, two judges and three other officials, according to state media. Such anti-corruption probes in Venezuela are extremely rare. The country was ranked 177th out of 180 in Transparency International’s latest corruption perception index.

Also arrested in the probe was Joselit Ramírez, who led Venezuela’s cryptocurrency regulator and was indicted on money laundering charges in 2020 in the Southern District of New York, accused of helping El Aissami evade sanctions by issuing digital currency.

Many observers suspect Venezuela’s corruption probe was likely part of a politically motivated purge. Elections there, which have not been considered free by international watchdogs since 2013, are scheduled for next year.

Francisco Monaldi, a Venezuelan oil expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said oil sales to the black market in China, circumventing US sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector, have led to immense graft. “As much as one-third of the oil sales have not been collected by PDVSA. It has been a feast for corrupt intermediaries,” Monaldi said. “But selective prosecution is used for purging political rivals.”

Venezuela boasts the world’s largest proven oil reserves and pumped more than 3mn barrels daily in its heyday. However, years of mismanagement, US sanctions and the expulsion of many foreign oil companies have reduced output to well below 1mn barrels per day.

Meanwhile, the country faces resurgent inflation, estimated to be at an annual rate of 350 per cent this year, according to local researchers Ecoanalítica. Staple food and medicine supplies are either scarce or too expensive for most Venezuelans, who live on $1.90 a day, the international poverty threshold. Some 7mn people have fled the country since 2015.

Maduro, who has survived a decade in power despite numerous attempts to oust him, did not comment publicly in the immediate aftermath of El Aissami’s resignation. His attorney-general, Tarek William Saab, said in an interview with local media that the former oil minister’s resignation “is what has to happen in situations like this”. Diosdado Cabello, a grandee of the ruling party, said in a press conference that “in the revolution there is no space for the corrupt”.

Juan Guaidó, an opposition leader who was until recently recognised by the US and dozens of other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate president, said in a statement that El Aissami’s resignation was proof of the Maduro government’s widespread corruption. “It is a confession of how they have pillaged the country,” he said.

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