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Venezuela nabs former senior oil officials in graft probe

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
This file photo, taken on January 31, 2017, shows Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (L) and then-Oil Minister Nelson Martinez talking during a rally with workers of the PDVSA state-owned oil company in Caracas. (By AFP)

Venezuelan authorities have detained two former senior oil officials in an expanding investigation into the country’s state-run oil industry.

Former oil minister Eulogio del Pino and the ex-president of state oil company PDVSA, Nestor Martinez, were arrested on Thursday, just four days after they were dismissed by President Nicolas Maduro in an unexpected cabinet shake-up.

The two stand accused of defrauding the government of state funds, conspiracy, and money laundering, among other charges, said Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab during a press conference in Venezuela’s capital city of Caracas.

Saab said the detention of the top officials fulfilled a government vow to ensure that Venezuela’s massive oil wealth was spent on those in need and was not embezzled by corrupt authorities with mansions and yachts in the US.

Del Pino (pictured below) allegedly profited from and assisted in doctoring production figures in a joint Russian-Venezuelan oil field. Saab also pointed out that the alleged scam deprived the Venezuelan state of more than $500 million in revenue between 2015 and 2017.

“This shouldn’t be seen as an isolated act,” Saab said, adding that 15 other PDVSA managers and officials had also been detained within the past 24 hours and a total of 65 since August.

Those taken into custody so far include six executives of PDVSA’s Huston-based subsidiary Citgo, five of whom hold American passports.

“What we’re doing will boost the people’s morale,” Saab said.

Citgo Petroleum, meanwhile, officially named a cousin of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and former oil minister Asdrubal Chavez as its new chief executive.

Del Pino and Martinez, both of whom are US-trained industry veterans, were replaced last Sunday by a senior Venezuelan general, who reportedly has little experience in the country’s oil industry.

According to press reports, both men are also protégés of Venezuela’s former oil czar Rafael Ramirez, who led PDVSA and served as oil minister for a decade until being appointed as the country’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN) in 2014.

Ramirez has increasingly spoken out against Maduro’s handling of the economy, dismissing public criticism from prominent government loyalists. He was reportedly sacked from his UN post, though no one in the government has officially confirmed his ouster. The UN said on Thursday that it hadn't been notified of any change in the country’s representation.

Ramirez is reportedly the ultimate target of the PDVSA investigations as well as an ongoing probe in the US that has led to the arrest of more than 10 individuals for paying bribes, including two former close aides to Ramirez arrested last month in Spain.

According to press reports, meanwhile, Del Pino claimed in a pre-recorded video clip released on social media following his arrest on Thursday that he was the victim of an unjustified attack, saying, “I hope this revolution gives me the right to a legitimate defense.”

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