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Venezuela’s oil minister resigns over graft probe

CARACAS (AFP) – Venezuela’s oil minister Tareck El Aissami resigned on Monday after prosecutors opened a corruption investigation into officials at the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

Anti-corruption police on Sunday arrested two people closely linked to El Aissami: top PDVSA official Antonio Perez Suarez, and Joselit Ramirez, who manages oil industry funds through cryptocurrencies.

“Given the investigations that have begun into the serious acts of corruption in PDVSA, I have taken the decision to submit my resignation as oil minister with the aim of totally supporting, accompanying and backing this process,” El Aissami wrote on Twitter.

El Aissami, who had been in the position since April 2020, added that he supported the government’s “crusade” against corruption.

Authorities have been probing high-ranking officials “who could be involved in serious acts of corruption and embezzlement”, the national police force said. Legislator Hugbel Roa was among those detained, alongside a prominent lawyer, an anti-terrorism judge and a mayor.

Venezuelan Minister of Industries and National Production Tareck El Aissami speaks during a press conference. PHOTO: AFP

It is not the first investigation into graft at the state oil company.

Former oil ministers Eulogio Del Pino and Nelson Martinez, who died while in police custody, were previously arrested as part of a corruption investigation.

El Aissami, who is under United States (US) sanction, is one of the most powerful leaders of the ruling Socialist Party of Venezuela. He had previously served as vice president, as well as minister of the interior and industry.

The newspaper Ultimas Noticias, which is close to the ruling party, reported that Ramirez diverted some USD3 billion from last year’s oil sales that were conducted in cryptocurrencies to circumvent US sanctions against Venezuelan crude.

The firm Ecoanalitica estimated that the foreign currency income of the Venezuelan state in 2022 totalled USD25 billion, said company director Adrubal Oliveros.

“For us to understand the magnitude of the embezzlement of USD3 billion,” Oliveros said,

“what disappeared is equivalent to 12 per cent of last year’s revenue”.