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Sat. May 25th, 2024

Venezuela made headlines on Tuesday as it announced the arrest of the former petroleum minister, Tareck El Aissami, alongside several others, as part of an investigation into an alleged multi-million dollar cryptocurrency fraud at the state oil company, PDVSA.

El Aissami, a significant figure and one-time ally of President Nicolas Maduro and former President Hugo Chavez, had resigned from his ministerial position a year prior and had since retreated from public life.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab revealed the arrest of El Aissami, displaying a photo of the 49-year-old in custody. Saab asserted the direct involvement of El Aissami in the purported crimes, announcing impending charges to be filed against him in the coming hours. Also detained were former economy minister Simon Alejandro Zerpa and businessman Samark Lopez, wanted by US authorities, facing charges including treason, embezzlement of public funds, money laundering, and criminal association.

The crackdown extended beyond high-profile figures to include dozens of officials, including senior managers of Venezuela’s Sunacrip crypto regulator. Saab noted that 17 additional warrants were pending. Critics have labeled the probe as a political maneuver by Maduro, who aims for a third presidential term in July, despite accusations of leveraging state apparatus to suppress political opponents.

The alleged fraudulent activity involved the sale of crude oil through cryptocurrency networks, purportedly as a means to bypass US sanctions against Venezuela. Witnesses cited by Saab revealed a pattern of underpriced crude sales, mismanagement of proceeds, and illicit commissions and bribes. This operation follows last year’s arrest of 61 individuals, including PDVSA executives and officials linked to Venezuela’s oil-backed cryptocurrency, the Petro, which was abandoned in January amid skepticism and scrutiny.

The demise of Petro triggered a government crackdown on bitcoin mining operations, despite cryptocurrencies being popular as a hedge against hyperinflation and currency devaluation. Venezuela’s oil production, once exceeding three million barrels per day, has dwindled to less than one million barrels due to mismanagement and severe sanctions. Corruption within PDVSA has been the subject of over 25 investigations since 2017.

President Maduro vowed to cleanse PDVSA of corruption, describing it as a means of safeguarding public funds. However, the recent arrests and ongoing investigations underscore the depth of the challenges facing Venezuela’s oil industry, amidst a backdrop of political instability and economic turmoil.

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