Venezuela oil czar in surprise resignation amid graft probes
A boy jumps near the “Los Petroleros” sculpture that shows two men working on an oil drill of Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A, PDVSA, on the Sabana Grande boulevard, in Caracas, Venezuela, March 20, 2023. Venezuela’s oil czar, Tareck El Aissami announced his resignation on Twitter and pledged to help investigate any allegations involving PDVSA. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
By Regina Garcia Cano in Caracas
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The man responsible for running Venezuela’s oil industry — the one that pays for virtually everything in the troubled country, from subsidized food to ridiculously cheap gas — has quit amid investigations into alleged corruption among officials in various parts of the government.
Tareck El Aissami’s announcement Monday was shocking on multiple counts. He was seen as a loyal ruling party member and considered a key figure in the government’s efforts to evade punishing international economic sanctions.
And he led the state oil company PDVSA in a Venezuelan business sector widely considered to be corrupt — in a country where embezzelment, bribery, money laundering and other wrongdoing are a lifestyle.
“Obviously, they are giving it the patina of an anti-corruption probe,” said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
“Rule of law is not being advanced here,” Berg added. “This is really a chance for the regime to sideline someone that it felt for some reason was a danger to it in the moment and to continue perpetuating acts of corruption once particular individuals have been forced out of the political scene.”
Hours after El Aissami revealed his resignation on Twitter, President Nicolás Maduro called his government’s fight against corruption “bitter” and “painful.” He said he accepted the resignation “to facilitate all the investigations that should result in the establishment of the truth, the punishment of the culprits, and justice in all these cases.”
Venezuela’s National Anti-Corruption Police last week announced an investigation into unidentified public officials in the oil industry, the justice system and some local governments. Attorney General Tarek William Saab in a radio interview Monday said that at least a half dozen officials, including people affiliated with PDVSA, had been arrested, and he expected more to be detained.
Among those arrested is Joselit Ramirez, a cryptocurrency regulator who was indicted in the U.S. along with El Aissami on money laundering charges in 2020.
Corruption has long been rampant in Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves. But officials are rarely held accountable — a major irritant to citizens, the majority of whom live on $1.90 a day, the international benchmark of extreme poverty.
“I assure you, even more so at this moment, when the country calls not only for justice but also for the strengthening of the institutions, we will apply the full weight of the law against these individuals,” Saab said.
Oil is Venezuela’s most important industry. A windfall of hundreds of billions in oil dollars thanks to record-high global prices allowed the late President Hugo Chávez to launch numerous initiatives, including state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs.
But a subsequent drop in prices and government mismanagement, first under Chávez’s government and then Maduro’s, ended the lavish spending. And so began a complex crisis that has pushed millions into poverty and driven more than 7 million Venezuela to migrate.
PDVSA’s mismanagement, and more recently economic sanctions imposed by the U.S., caused a steady production decline, going from the 3.5 million barrels a day when Chávez rose to power in 1999 to roughly 700,000 barrels a day last year.
David Smilde, a Tulane University professor who has conducted extensive research on Venezuela, said the moves by Maduro’s government are more than just an effort to clean its image.
“Arresting important figures and accepting the resignation of one of the most powerful ministers in a case that involves $3 billion does not improve your image,” he said. “It is probably because the missing money actually has an important impact on a government with serious budgetary problems.”
The Biden administration recently loosened some sanctions, even allowing oil giant Chevron for the first time in more than three years to resume production. Maduro’s government has been negotiating with its U.S.-backed political opponents primarily to get the sanctions lifted.
U.S. congressional researchers saw El Aissami as an impediment to Maduro’s goals.
“Should Al Aissami remain in that position, it could complicate efforts to lift oil sanctions,” a November report from the Congressional Research Center said.
The U.S. government designated El Aissami, a powerful Maduro ally, as a narcotics kingpin in 2017 in connection with activities in his previous positions as interior minister and a state governor. The Treasury Department alleged that “he oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States.”
Under the government of Chávez, El Aissami headed the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He was appointed minister of oil in April 2020.
“El Aissami was a key player in the Maduro government’s sanctions evasion strategy. We’re talking about someone who knows where all the bodies are buried, so it will be key to watch where he ends up,” said Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council focused on Colombia and Venezuela. “If El Aissami ends up being implicated himself, it could have serious implications for the entire power structure.”
In September, Maduro’s government renewed wrongdoing accusations against another former oil minister, Rafael Ramírez, alleging he was involved in a multibillion-dollar embezzlement operation during the early 2010s that took advantage of a dual currency exchange system. Ramírez, who oversaw the OPEC nation’s oil industry for a decade, denied the accusations.
In 2016, Venezuela’s then opposition-led National Assembly said $11 billion went missing at PDVSA in the 2004-2014 period when Ramirez was in charge of the company. In 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department accused a bank in Andorra of laundering some $2 billion stolen from PDVSA.
ConocoPhillips to exercise pre-emptive right; will buy rest of Surmont project
An ice-covered ConocoPhillips sign at the Colville-Delta 5, or as it’s more commonly known, CD5, drilling site on Alaska’s North Slope is shown on February 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Mark Thiessen
ConocoPhillips says it will exercise its right of first refusal and purchase TotalEnergies’ 50 per cent stake in the Surmont oilsands project for $4 billion.
The Houston-based oil company is currently the operator and the 50 per cent owner of the in situ oilsands asset near Fort McMurray, Alta.
In April, Suncor Energy Inc. said it would acquire the other half of Surmont, part of a larger $6.1-billion deal that would also see Suncor acquire French company Total’s stake in the Fort Hills oilsands project.
But ConocoPhillips says it will pre-empt Suncor and purchase the remainder of Surmont for itself.
The company says it expects the deal will add approximately US$600 million of annual free cash flow in 2024, based on a West Texas Intermediate oil price of US$60.
The deal is expected to close in the second half of 2023, with an effective date of April 1, 2023.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2023.
Companies in this story: (TSX:SU)
Tempers rise as German government’s clean heating plans go up in smoke
The energy guide of a Munchkin natural gas boiler, part of a super-efficient gas boiler, hot water and air conditioning unit, can be seen at a home in Ossining, N.Y. Friday, Aug. 8, 2008. Germany’s government is facing a major test after two junior partners in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-party coalition sparred publicly over a key element in the country’s ambitious climate policy. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)
BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s government is facing a major test after two junior partners in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-party coalition sparred publicly over a key element in the country’s ambitious climate policy.
Economy and Energy Minister Robert Habeck of the environmentalist Greens accused the libertarian Free Democratic Party of backtracking on agreements by refusing to let lawmakers debate a bill for replacing home heating systems with greener alternatives.
The bill was approved by Cabinet in March after months of intense haggling between the parties. A major stumbling block was the Green party’s demand that the installation of new oil or gas furnaces should be banned from next year to ensure Germany can meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2045.
A compromise saw numerous exceptions and subsidies included in the bill, but the Free Democrats later said they still had misgivings, meaning it is unlikely to be taken up by parliament before the summer recess.
“In my view this is a breach of promise,” Habeck told reporters in Berlin.
“If you enter into government and give your word, then you stand by your word,” he added.
Populist newspapers have claimed that installing climate-friendly heat pumps will be hugely expensive and may not be feasible in older buildings, though such systems are widely used in neighboring countries. Experts counter that a failure to replace fossil fuel heatings will end up costing homeowners more as the price of oil and gas rise sharply in the coming decades because of emissions surcharges agreed at the European level.
Scholz has largely tried to sit out the spat between his two junior partners, but told members of his own center-left Social Democratic Party on Tuesday that Germany’s transformation to a carbon-neutral economy can only succeed if politicians can convince voters that their fears are taken seriously and the changes will benefit them.
Succession Planning: Justin’s Excellent Chinese Adventure
Tempers rise as German government’s clean heating plans go up in smoke
Glendale Skatepark now includes on-site mentors from the YMCA
The cyber gulag: How Russia tracks, censors and controls its citizens
The Formidable Superstar, Jim Brown Never Fit Black Or White Stereotypes
EU welcomes F-16 jet decision for Ukraine; pilots already being trained
Blazers’ Logan Stankoven eyeing ‘surreal’ moment to hoist Memorial Cup in hometown
Sports2 days ago
Blais scores twice, Canada beats Germany 5-2 to win gold at men’s hockey worlds
Top Story CP20 hours ago
CP NewsAlert: Halifax wildfire still out of control, thousands forced from homes
2023 Election19 hours ago
Election day: Alberta voters go to the polls, expected nail-biter between UCP, NDP
2023 Election19 hours ago
Some of the memorable comments made during Alberta election campaign
Top Story CP18 hours ago
CP NewsAlert: ‘Red Velvet,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland’ lead Dora award noms
Justice13 hours ago
B.C. police say remains of Madison Scott, last seen in 2011, have been found
2023 Election20 hours ago
Promise tracker: What Alberta’s UCP and NDP pledge to do if they win the election
Bjorn Lomborg2 days ago
How to save 4 million lives every year