Friday 15 December, 2017

Suspects in Venezuelan corruption probe hold US passports

Five high-ranking officials arrested in Venezuela amid an anti-corruption sweep of its state-owned oil company carry American passports, people with knowledge of the case said Wednesday.

The men's U.S. citizenship affords them rights under international law, the State Department said, in a case that threatens to further strain relations between the Trump Administration and Venezuela as socialist President Nicolas Maduro sets out to refinance billions in foreign debt in the face of sanctions.

Two people confirmed to The Associated Press the dual citizenship for five of six Citgo officials detained on Tuesday. The two have direct knowledge of the case but insisted on speaking anonymously out of fear of retaliation from the government.

The executives of Houston-based Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, are suspected of embezzlement stemming from a $4 billion agreement to refinance company bonds, Venezuelan officials have said.

One of the people with knowledge of the case said five of the detained men are vice presidents at Citgo and the sixth is acting president Jose Pereira, who has permanent residency status in the United States but no U.S. passport.

Venezuela sits on the world's largest oil reserves, but plunging crude prices in recent years have sent the country into financial crisis, with widespread shortages of food and medicine.

In a televised address Wednesday, Maduro said that he had ordered the Citgo investigation, but that he only learned from the U.S. Embassy earlier in the day of the men's dual citizenship.

"They are Venezuelans and they will be judged as corrupt thieves and traitors of their country," Maduro said.

He also named as Citgo's new president Asdrubal Chavez, a former oil minister and a cousin of the late President Hugo Chavez.

Earlier in the day, Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said the purported embezzlement scheme went beyond corruption, calling it "sabotage" and "espionage."

Rodriguez said the men have deprived the country of money that "Venezuela needs to buy medicine and food." He said they will "pay in Venezuela's justice system."

Officials this year have arrested roughly 60 people related to alleged corruption involving PDVSA, including many senior managers of the state-run firm and its subsidiaries in Venezuela and the United States.

Citgo runs three refineries in Illinois, Texas and Louisiana.

The State Department said in a statement that having arrested U.S. citizens, Venezuela must provide information of the arrests to the U.S. at their request. American officials must immediately request a visit, it added without elaborating.

A person with knowledge of the case said Citgo has provided a list of the men's names to U.S. officials, setting into action a possible visit.