Venezuela government again accuses former oil czar of wrongdoing



CARACAS, Venezuela — The Venezuelan government is again accusing its former oil czar of wrongdoing while overseeing the country’s most important industry, this time alleging he was involved in a multi-billion dollar embezzlement operation. dollars in the early 2010s which took advantage of a dual currency trading system.

Venezuela’s Attorney General Tarek William Saab told reporters on Thursday that Rafael Ramírez, who oversaw the OPEC country’s oil industry for a decade as oil minister and president of its state-owned oil company, PDVSA , is wanted on various charges including embezzlement, money laundering and racketeering.

Saab’s announcement followed two days in which the country’s current oil minister, Tareck El Aissami, presented reporters with what he said was evidence of a nearly $5 billion fraud. The documents included a letter approving a loan to the oil company in Venezuelan bolivars which was repaid in US dollars and nearly 30 payment receipts.

Ramirez told The Associated Press that the charges against him were false.

US prosecutors have long had detailed schemes similar to the one Venezuela’s top prosecutor alleged against Ramirez.

Prosecutors allege that Ramirez and his co-conspirators used the official and unofficial dual exchange rate system to enrich themselves. The system allowed politically connected people to earn millions overnight by taking advantage of the huge difference in rates.

At the official exchange rate, bolivars have a significantly higher value than on the black market. Those with dollars could buy bolivars on the black market and then make loans to PDVSA which repaid them at the official exchange rate, resulting in a return in dollars far greater than what they had originally spent to buy. Venezuelan currency.

Prosecutors say Ramirez benefited from a loan he authorized PDVSA to take out in bolivars, but for which the oil giant repaid $4.8 billion to two private companies – not banks – in 28 installments between March 2012 and March 2013.

The operation involved several people, including the financial director at the time, Victor Aular Blanco. He was arrested on Tuesday and, in a video shared by Saab on Thursday, he admitted his involvement.

Saab told The Associated Press that he has yet to ask Venezuela’s highest court, the government-aligned Supreme Court of Justice, to issue an extradition request for Ramirez, who resides in Italy, but described it as a quick procedural step. The court previously issued an extradition order for Ramirez in a separate embezzlement case, but Italy’s top court denied the request earlier this year.

Ramirez, a Venezuelan citizen, fled to Italy after falling out with Maduro and resigning as Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations in 2017. Soon after, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor ordered his arrest for bankrupting the country’s main source of income. The court then requested his extradition from Italy.

Ramirez was granted refugee status in Italy and his lawyers argued he would face political persecution if extradited to Venezuela. In January, Italy’s highest court confirmed that Ramirez could not be extradited to face corruption charges in his country because of Venezuela’s record of human rights abuses.

Ramirez called the previous Venezuelan investigation a retaliation for his decision to break with Maduro, whom he accused of wiping out Venezuela’s once-thriving oil industry and abandoning the socialist ideals of the country’s late leader Hugo Chávez. . Ahead of El Aissami’s press conference on Tuesday, he tweeted that the current PDVSA chief would “establish another false positive” against him instead of “taking care of PDVSA and its workers.”

“This new attack started when I announced my intention to run as a presidential candidate,” he told the AP. He added that ruling party associates “reacted with extreme violence.

“They fear a Chavista option that confronts them,” Ramirez said, using the term for supporters of the political movement founded by Chávez.

Corruption has long plagued Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, but those responsible are rarely held accountable – a major irritant for citizens, the majority of whom live on $1.90 a day, the international benchmark for extreme poverty.

In 2016, Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly said $11 billion disappeared from PDVSA during the 2004-2014 period when Ramirez was the company’s head. In 2015, the US Treasury Department accused a bank in Andorra of laundering some $2 billion stolen from PDVSA.

Separately, Ramirez was named but not charged in a partially unsealed 2018 indictment in Houston against five former PDVSA officials. The indictment alleges that two of those charged told businessmen that the proceeds of bribes paid in exchange for prompt payments and contracts would be shared with a senior Venezuelan official.

This official was identified in the unsealed portion of the indictment only as “Official B”. The unidentified Venezuelan politician is Ramirez, a US official told The Associated Press.

Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Miami.


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