Oil execs arrested in Venezuela post U.S. push to overthrow Maduro

Years after American oil executives faced down a cult-like leader in a Venezuelan prison, they remain players in a multi-front proxy war between U.S. and Venezuelan governments. The ailing Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro,…

Oil execs arrested in Venezuela post U.S. push to overthrow Maduro

Years after American oil executives faced down a cult-like leader in a Venezuelan prison, they remain players in a multi-front proxy war between U.S. and Venezuelan governments.

The ailing Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, depends on sympathetic officials in the United States to prosecute former Petroleos de Venezuela SA executives for alleged crimes while serving as oil company CEO before being elected president.

That office holder, though, is less likely to follow the lead of the White House if the Venezuelan leader is ousted. No U.S. president has recognized Maduro as legitimate, leading to a rare U.S. endorsement of the president of another country’s ouster by his people. U.S. officials have not shied away from discussing a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela with people throughout Latin America.

In recent weeks, Venezuela’s opposition has been drawing international attention to the arrests of six oil executives including the vice president. They’ve been charged with corruption and illegal enrichment in the collapse of PDVSA’s finances in recent years, while also facing accusations that they violated U.S. sanctions by illicitly distributing Venezuela oil to countries outside the United States. The U.S. says the executives have taken part in a “criminal enterprise” to enrich themselves at the expense of the company.

Victor Salinas, former vice president of PDVSA, was arrested for failing to account for almost $45 million in company funds while in control of the oil giant. In a letter to Venezuelan authorities released this week, he said he had been ordered to spend about two years in custody.

“I’m innocent of these charges,” Salinas wrote in the letter, shown to The Associated Press on Friday. “They are politically motivated.”

Salinas was also handcuffed during a U.S. diplomatic briefing in Caracas in 2014. During the conversation, he told U.S. officials he had taken part in a weapons deal with Colombia involving weapons in exchange for Venezuelan oil, an account of the shipment shown to the AP by two U.S. officials who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about it.

The Obama administration took a strong stand against the alleged manipulation of PDVSA accounts, naming it a “threat to national security” and banning U.S. companies from doing business with PDVSA.

When the Obama administration released Moreno Merida, vice president of the refining company Petropiar, Moreno complained in private about President Trump’s determination to take out the country’s embattled leader.

“President Nicolas Maduro is going to lose,” Moreno said in a private gathering at the height of the fracas, according to two sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to discuss the information.

Maduro has vowed to run for re-election, setting the stage for a presidential election he’s expected to win handily. But the U.S. and opposition leaders say the election is illegitimate and are urging the national assembly to set up a constitutional commission to replace Maduro’s government.

The National Assembly, which has been boycotted by the government, has so far resisted the pressure, but opposition leaders are increasingly worried that tensions in the divided country could boil over and provoke serious unrest.

Nearly four years after oil executives were jailed on Wall Street, former Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) executives have not been released by the Maduro government despite pleas from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and more than a dozen other international figures, including Venezuelan labor leaders and members of the U.S. Congress.

Speaking to the AP by phone from Caracas, Moises Naim, a member of the board of directors at Petropiar, said Moreno confirmed the report that the U.S. rejected attempts to release Moreno due to concerns about U.S. intelligence links to his incarceration.

After PDVSA refused to make Salinas available for an interview, the AP obtained copies of his letter and several others detailing allegations against PDVSA officers, including the allegations that they undervalued PDVSA-owned oil fields in exchange for money from clients outside Venezuela. Salinas wrote that PDVSA charged a $650 fee for each property in exchange for gas and feedstock.

“It’s part of the crimes which they’re charging us,” Salinas said, referring to the executives. “They could have set a different example.”

Weber reported from Washington.

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