Venezuela prosecutor orders arrest of former state oil chief

AP News
Posted: Jan 25, 2018 4:55 PM
Venezuela prosecutor orders arrest of former state oil chief

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's chief prosecutor ordered the arrest of the former head of the state oil company Thursday, accusing him of bankrupting the downtrodden country's primary source of income.

Officials also announced that Venezuela is expelling the Spanish ambassador, a move that further isolates the Latin American nation from the international community.

Rafael Ramirez, the former head of the PDVSA state oil company, is wanted on suspicion of money laundering and embezzlement, Attorney General Tarek William Saab said.

Ramirez recently resigned as Venezuela's ambassador at the United Nations after falling out with Venezuela's socialist president, Nicolas Maduro.

Saab said he is preparing to ask the international police agency Interpol to issue a "red alert" for Ramirez's arrest. He called Ramirez the "father of corruption" at the oil company.

"You used to make millionaires of your family members," Saab said on state television. "Mr. Ramirez, we inform you that you are cited by this ministry."

Venezuela sits atop the world largest oil reserves, but production levels have crashed along with the economy in a deepening crisis after nearly two decades of mismanagement under socialist rule. The country is beset by hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.

Ramirez's associates have been a target of the Saab-led crackdown on corruption at the troubled PDVSA that began late last year. Dozens of officials have been arrested, including two former oil ministers and Ramirez's cousin, Diego Salazar.

Salazar is jailed on suspicion of helping siphon off $1.6 billion to banks in the European principality of Andorra.

Ramirez, who ran PDVSA for more than a decade, resigned from his three-year U.N. post in early December on orders from Maduro. Both were close to the late President Hugo Chavez, but their rivalry became apparent last year when Ramirez began publishing articles critical of Maduro.

Ramirez has denied taking part in any corruption scheme and has not made his whereabouts public after leaving New York. On Sunday, he published an article asking Maduro for safe passage to challenge him in primaries for the presidential election this year as a candidate of the socialist ruling party.

The national constituent assembly has approved holding the presidential election by the end of April — drawing broad international condemnation for setting the vote months ahead of when it has traditionally taken place.

The United States will not recognize the results of Venezuela's "snap" presidential election if it is held, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, adding that the vote would be "neither free nor fair."

Two senior State Department officials say all economic tools are available to the U.S. to increase the pressure on Venezuela, including the possibility of new sanctions.

In yet another criminal case, Saab said he is opening an investigation into Tomas Guanipa, a member of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Without providing any details, Saab said Guanipa is suspected of inciting violence during anti-government protests last year that resulted in more than 120 dead.

Earlier in the day, Minister of Foreign Affairs Jorge Arreaza announced that Venezuela was declaring Spanish Ambassador Jesus Silva Fernandez persona non grata.

Arreaza accused Spain of "imperialist and supremacist" meddling in its affairs.

The action came days after Spain and the other countries in the European Union imposed economic and travel sanctions on seven senior Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses or breaching the rule of law.

Venezuela was once a Spanish colony and Spain remains a major trading partner for the region. Many Venezuelans have fled to Spain during their country's deepening crisis.

Venezuela in December expelled top diplomats from Canada and Brazil on similar grounds.

Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said his country would respond with "proportionate reciprocal measures." He said a range of possibilities would be discussed at the Spanish government's weekly Cabinet meeting Friday.