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In Quito, Ecuador, a while back, while providing a risk assessment workshop for officials from Latin American oil companies, I was able to spend several days in private conversations with Venezuela's minister of oil.
Now heading up the national oil company PDVSA, he was considered one of the most knowledgeable and able of the region's execs at the time.
During our talks, he shared some useful advice on how to integrate the national oil company budgetary requirements with the vortexes of national politics.
At one point, over a late-night drink, he confided the following: "You are always in a no-win situation when it comes to insulating working capital from central budgets," he declared. "You have to provide for the next round of drilling. For that, proceeds from sales must be segregated. But the politicians can only see buying the next election."
We were to renew the conversation later when I was scheduled to provide a similar seminar at the invitation of PDVSA.
However, by the time that was to take place, the domestic civil strife in Venezuela had intensified.
The government admitted it could not provide sufficient security for my appearance in the eastern, oil-producing region where the meeting was to take place, while the U.S. Department of State chimed in advising that I should not go.
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And Thursday (Nov. 30), my "drinking colleague," – or Eulogio Del Pino, as the world knows him – was arrested at his home in Caracas.
This is one of the latest in a series of arrests orchestrated by embattled President Nicolas Maduro.
Maduro claims there is a "cartel of organized crime" intent on spreading graft and undermining the national energy sector.
His political opposition charge the president with a desperate attempt to purge those who have criticized his leadership.
Let me say upfront that I have no personal knowledge of whether the graft charges are true or which side has the upper hand in the telling of truths about what is occurring internally in Venezuela.
After experiencing the last year in American politics, we certainly have no right to lecture to others.
But I do recall what Eulogio told me back in Ecuador.
It involved two energy matters that brought the latest wave of political arrests in Venezuela.
And both have resulted in Maduro seeking out opponents to pillory…
The Real Reason Behind PDVSA's Recent Arrest Spree
The first is a contentious financial deal for Citgo refineries in the United States.
The second is Petrozamora SA, a joint venture with Russian banking major Gazprombank (itself an arm of state-run natural gas giant Gazprom and oil major Gazprom Neft).
Del Pino is closely involved in the Petrozamora affair, while another well-known oil exec – Nelson Martinez – headed up the Citgo network both while PDVSA owned it and after sales began to other interests.
However, the president's real political target in Caracas may actually be Rafael Ramirez.
Ramirez is the former Venezuelan oil kingpin, a close ally of U.S. interests in the area, and the most likely opponent for Maduro – should there ever again be democratic elections in the country.
Ramirez has been the mentor of both Del Pino and Martinez as they rose through the ranks of the Venezuelan oil hierarchy.
Speculation has already begun that Thursday's arrests were more to pressure Del Pino and Martinez to turn "states evidence" against their former patron.
These latest moves follow the arrests of more than 60 others within PDVSA, casting a chilling silence over the national oil company, to say the least.
None of my current contacts there will answer any messages these days.
According to Maduro, the issue surrounds billions of dollars in corruption within PDVSA, its arrangements with foreign companies and finance, as well as its administration of assets held abroad (like the Citgo refineries in the United States).
Others, however, charge that the real problem results from an increasingly desperate political leadership with its own "private accounts" in which public revenue is being siphoned while the central budget implodes under the weight of its own red ink.
The situation has only been intensified by the technical default into which both PDVSA bonds and Venezuelan sovereign debt (much tied to that PDVSA paper) have fallen after Caracas failed to pay interest as scheduled.
Eulogio also didn't help his standing with Maduro when he went public with an opinion that Venezuela needs to own up to its foreign debt obligations.
There was, of course, another reason for that position…
About the Author
Dr. Kent Moors is an internationally recognized expert in oil and natural gas policy, risk assessment, and emerging market economic development. He serves as an advisor to many U.S. governors and foreign governments. Kent details his latest global travels in his free Oil & Energy Investor e-letter. He makes specific investment recommendations in his newsletter, the Energy Advantage. For more active investors, he issues shorter-term trades in his Energy Inner Circle.