CARACAS — Venezuela’s military on Thursday arrested the country’s former oil minister and the ex-chief of state oil company PDVSA after both men were sacked as part of an anti-corruption crackdown.
Attorney General Tarek William Saab told journalists that an operation by the Military Counterintelligence Unit "led to the arrests of Eulogio del Pino and Nelson Martinez."
Both former officials were arrested at dawn at their homes, four days after they were axed from their jobs by President Nicolas Maduro.
State television images showed black-clad security forces, their faces covered and armed with rifles, knocking on the door of Del Pino’s apartment.
When he emerged, dressed in shorts and a Venezuela soccer shirt, the powerful former official had to provide a fingerprint sample.
Saab said the arrests were part of an operation "to dismantle the cartel that has been hitting the oil industry."
He said he had ordered the arrests of 16 people as part of the operation, some of whom were "outside the country and we hope they will be delivered to Venezuelan justice."
Del Pino and Martinez are the highest-ranking officials arrested as part of an anti-corruption purge at PDVSA, the state oil giant which accounts for almost all the country’s income.
Oil minister Manuel Quevedo, a former general installed to replace both men, told reporters at an OPEC meeting in Vienna that Venezuela’s oil production was being sabotaged as a preamble to a coup.
"This sabotage plan is aimed at achieving a repeat of 2002-03 when there was an attempted coup against (Hugo) Chavez," the former president, Quevedo said.
Last week, the Venezuelan authorities arrested six executives of PDVSA’s US-based subsidiary, Citgo, for allegedly signing contracts to refinance $4 billion in debt without government approval. The government alleges that a $50 million bribe was paid as part of that deal.
Thursday’s arrests come amid what analysts say is an aggressive push by Maduro to consolidate power over key institutions and increasingly scarce resources ahead of next year’s election. Key targets in the purge are allies of Venezuela’s UN ambassador Rafael Ramirez, to whom both men arrested Thursday were close.
Ramirez, who led PDVSA for a decade, is himself rumoured to be on borrowed time in his UN post.
"While it may be that Ramirez has yet to be formally notified, he will probably be out in a matter of days," said Eurasia Group analyst, Lisa Grais-Targow.
"The targeting of Ramirez is part of a broader effort by Maduro to consolidate his control over key institutions, including PDVSA, and to ensure that the military is fully bought into his political survival," she said.
At least one-third of the cabinet is made up of active or retired officers, and the military has become a major pillar of support for the widely unpopular socialist leader.
The South American country, teetering on the brink of a full-blown default on its massive debt, has the world’s biggest reserves of oil.
But because of endemic corruption and a chronic lack of investment, the OPEC member’s production is falling sharply.
Annual output is around 1.9 million barrels per day, having slumped more than 23 percent between January 2016 and October this year.—AFP