Venezuela arrests brother of ex oil czar in corruption probe
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela has thrown back in prison the brother of the country’s former oil czar as part of an ongoing investigation into a multi-billion dollar embezzlement scheme at the state-run oil company.
Fidel Ramirez was arrested last Wednesday after failing to appear in court as required by the terms of his bail, Venezuela’s Attorney General Tarek William Saab said in a brief interview Sunday with The Associated Press.
Ramirez was originally arrested in early 2018 for his alleged involvement in a decade-old scheme to siphon to a bank account in the tiny European country of Andorra $2 billion from state-run oil giant PDVSA.
At the time of the alleged crimes, PDVSA was under the direction of his brother, former Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, a harsh critic of the socialist government he once served.
Specifically, Fidel Ramirez, a medical doctor who once cared for the late Hugo Chavez, is accused of amassing 250,000 euros at an account at Banca Privada d’Andorra, or BPA, stemming from allegedly fraudulent medical services he billed PDVSA through two companies under other individuals’ names.
Banking authorities in Andorra, a mountainous country wedged between France and Spain, intervened BPA in 2015 amid allegations from the U.S. Treasury Department that it had become a central spoke for money laundering from government-connected elites in Venezuela, Russia and China.
Rafael Ramirez did not immediately respond to a request for comment and has been mostly silent in recent days on social media, where he takes frequent jabs at Nicolás Maduro’s government and its repeated efforts to link him to corruption at PDVSA. The latest attempt came earlier this month when Saab, acting in response to complaints from the current oil chief, Tareck El Aissami, accused Ramirez of involvement in a $5 billion currency scheme i nvolving fake loans to PDVSA from government insiders.
Ramirez was for years one of Chavez’s most trusted aides, charged with managing the world’s largest petroleum reserves at a time of soaring oil prices.
But when the late socialist icon fell ill, eventually dying of cancer, he saw his influence inside the Bolivarian revolution fade as his rival Maduro tightened his grip on power. He has called the accusations against him in Venezuela a witch hunt taken in retaliation for his decision to break with Maduro, who he tried to unseat as president. Italy, where Ramirez fled after resigning in 2017 as Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, last year rejected Venezuela’s extradition request, finding that he would face political persecution if he was sent back.
But Ramirez has also been on the radar of prosecutors in the U.S., having been named — but not charged — in an indictment partially unsealed in 2018 in Houston against five former PDVSA officials
The indictment alleges two of the charged individuals told businessmen that proceeds from bribes made in exchange for quick payments and contracts would be shared with a senior Venezuelan official. That official was identified in the unsealed portion of the indictment only as “Official B.” The unidentified Venezuelan politician is Ramirez, a U.S. official told The Associated Press.
Corruption has long been rampant in Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves, but officials are rarely held accountable — a major irritant to citizens, the majority of whom live on $1.90 a day, the international benchmark of extreme poverty.
Goodman reported from Miami