CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The Venezuelan government is again accusing its former oil czar of wrongdoing while he oversaw the country’s most important industry, this time alleging he was involved in a multi-billion dollar embezzlement operation during the early 2010s that took advantage of a dual currency exchange system.
Venezuela Attorney General Tarek William Saab on Thursday told reporters that Rafael Ramírez, who oversaw the OPEC nation’s oil industry for a decade as oil minister and president of its state-owned oil company, PDVSA, is wanted on various charges including embezzlement, money laundering and racketeering.
Saab’s announcement followed two days in which the country’s current oil minister, Tareck El Aissami, presented to reporters what he characterized as evidence of a nearly $5 billion fraud. The documents included a letter approving a loan to the oil company in Venezuelan bolivars that was repaid in U.S. dollars and nearly 30 payment receipts.
Ramirez told The Associated Press the accusations against him are false.
U.S. prosecutors have long detailed schemes similar to the one that Venezuela’s top prosecutor alleged against Ramirez.
Prosecutors allege that Ramirez and his co-conspirators used the dual official and unofficial exchange rate system to enrich themselves. The system allowed politically connected people to make millions overnight by taking advantage of the huge difference between the rates.
At the official exchange rate, bolivars have a significantly higher value than in the black market. Those who had dollars could purchase bolivars in the black market, then give loans to PDVSA which paid them back at the official exchange rate, resulting in a return in dollars far above what they originally spent to buy Venezuela’s currency.
Prosecutors say Ramirez benefited from a loan he authorized PDVSA to take out in bolivars but for which the oil giant paid back $4.8 billon to two private companies — not banks — in 28 payments between March 2012 and March 2013.
The operation involved several people, including the company’s then-finance chief, Victor Aular Blanco. He was arrested Tuesday, and in a video Saab shared Thursday he acknowledged his participation.
Saab told The Associated Press he has yet to ask Venezuela’s top court, the government-aligned Supreme Tribunal of Justice, to issue an extradition request for Ramirez, who resides in Italy, but described it as a quick procedural step. The tribunal previously issued an extradition order for Ramirez in a separate embezzling case, but Italy’s highest court rejected the request earlier this year.
Ramirez, a Venezuelan citizen, fled to Italy after falling out with Maduro and resigning as Venezuela’s United Nations ambassador in 2017. Soon after, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor ordered his arrest on charges of bankrupting the country’s primary source of income. The tribunal then requested his extradition from Italy.
Ramirez was given refugee status in Italy, and his lawyers argued that he would face political persecution if he was extradited to Venezuela. In January, Italy’s highest court confirmed that Ramirez cannot be extradited to face corruption charges at home because of Venezuela’s record of violating human rights.
Ramirez called the previous Venezuelan probe a retaliation for his decision to break with Maduro, whom he has accused of running Venezuela’s once-thriving oil industry into the ground and of abandoning the socialist ideals of the country’s late leader, Hugo Chávez. Ahead of El Aissami’s news conference Tuesday, he tweeted that PDVSA’s current chief would “set up another false positive” against him instead of “taking care of PDVSA and its workers.”
“This new attack began when I announced my intention to run as a presidential candidate,” he told the AP. He added that ruling party associates "have reacted with extreme violence.
“They fear a Chavista option that confronts them,” Ramirez said using the term for the followers of the political movement founded by Chávez.
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.
In 2016, Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly said $11 billion went missing at PDVSA in the 2004-2014 period when Ramirez was in charge of the company. In 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department accused a bank in Andorra of laundering some $2 billion stolen from PDVSA.
Separately, Ramirez was 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.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Miami.