Nicolás Maduro’s “Corruption” Purge Is Thinly Veiled Power Play

Regime Arrests 80 People in PDVSA Scandal, Tightens Grip on Power

Venezuela is the most corrupt nation in the region. (Sebastián Díaz)

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Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro accepted the resignation of Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami on March 20, 2023. El Aissami—a long-time regime ally—is one of the dozens of officials Maduro fired due to a corruption scandal involving state-owned oil company PDVSA, the dictatorship’s largest income source.

Maduro has never shown interest in fighting corruption, even less within his regime. He is removing regime ringleaders who could potentially dislodge him. The objective is to ensure his continuity through a political purge. By April 20, the National Anticorruption Police had arrested over 80 people, including high-level officials, under charges of influence peddling, criminal association, and money laundering.

The crusade against the “anti-value officials,” as Maduro has called them, reveals a clash between Maduro’s and El Aissami’s factions. Given that El Aissami has sensitive information and relationships related to rogue Middle East nations, the regime excluded him from the PDVSA audit. El Aissami’s whereabouts remain unknown since his resignation.

Maduro Needs the Military on His Side

To replace El Aissami (2020–2023), Maduro appointed Colonel Pedro Tellechea as the oil minister and PDVSA president. From 2019 to 2022, Tellechea was the chairman of Pequiven, the PDVSA petrochemistry subsidiary.

Maduro knows support from the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) is crucial to uphold the Chavista dictatorship. That is why he has granted the high-level positions left by recently fired officials to FANB officers.

Esteban Hernández, a Venezuelan policy analyst and host of Miami-based media Contra Poder, told the Impunity Observer that—akin to mafias—different groups are fighting for power within the regime.

Hernández explains that after dictator Hugo Chávez’s death, two factions emerged within the regime. These are (1) the civilian faction or the Francisco de Miranda Front and (2) the military faction or the 4F Military.

Since Chávez’s death, minor purges have steadily occurred inside the dictatorship. These have driven former hardline powerful officials such as Luisa Ortega (2008–2014 attorney general) and Rafael Ramírez (2002–2014 oil minister) into exile.

To ensure continuity, the Maduro-led civilian faction has constantly appointed military officers to prominent positions to counter the presence of 4F Military members. An example is Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Padrino, who has been defense minister since 2014.

A New Power Structure

The next presidential election in Venezuela will take place in 2024. However, Maduro has threatened the international community that he will impede the election unless the United States removes sanctions. The Joe Biden administration has already eased sanctions on the oil sector and has offered more concessions if negotiations advance.

Dismissing El Aissami—Venezuela’s interlocutor with Iran, Syria, Turkey, and the terrorist organization Hezbollah—was proof of the regime’s alleged willingness to reestablish ties with the United States. Since 2017, El Aissami has been subject to US sanctions and a $10 million capture reward. Therefore, reaching agreements with new Oil Minister Tellechea—a colonel apparently unrelated to drug trafficking—makes US negotiations more amenable.

The Biden administration has also praised the ongoing PDVSA audit, sharing its desire for an independent and transparent in-depth investigation. The dictatorship has fooled the White House with this audit, which is nothing other than a political purge.

Venezuelan opposition political parties will hold a primary election in October. They seek to confront Chavismo in 2024 with a strong candidate that will allow them to win the election and have a peaceful transition of power.

While Maduro is clinging to power, a transition might entail concessions and US amnesty for the dictatorship officials, including himself. However, it would be a significant setback for the military faction, which has enjoyed multiple privileges since Chavismo’s inception.

By granting FANB members even more power within the dictatorship, Maduro is securing his regime continuity ahead of the 2024 election. It also portrays gratification to shortsighted US officials by removing El Aissami from the oil sector.

The Anticorruption Façade

Venezuela is the most corrupt nation in the region and third among the 180 countries ranked in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

Victor Mijares, a political science professor at the Colombian University of the Andes, has reported how the 24-year-old regime has steadily adopted corruption to remain in office. The oil boom Venezuela enjoyed during Chávez’s tenure reinforced power centralization. Along with growing electoral irregularities, this turned Venezuela into a crony authoritarian regime.

PDVSA has not been an exception. Francisco Monaldi, professor at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, has estimated that the company earned around $1 trillion from 2004 to 2014. Most of that money fueled corruption and cronyism. The nonprofit Venezuela Transparency has reported 220 funds-embezzlement cases by PDVSA officials since 1999.

Long before the 2019 US oil embargo, the regime used to reward their allies with high-level PDVSA positions. These officials engaged in oil smuggling and other corruption activities. As the international media has openly reported, Venezuela has also sold oil to Iran.

Due to unreliable intermediaries, a Reuters investigation estimated that out of $25 billion, PDVSA has accrued $21.2 billion in accounts receivable since 2020. Around $3.6 billion are uncollectible bad debts.

The so-called anticorruption crusade is the first of its kind during Chavismo, although nonprofits and the media have relentlessly unveiled corruption cases, drug trafficking, and alliances with foreign terrorist groups. It is hilarious to think that the regime, in the name of honesty, is now willing to undertake a crusade against itself.

The Venezuelan opposition and the United States must be aware that this is a façade. The regime, particularly the Maduro wing of Chavismo, is setting the stage before the 2024 election to reinforce its power status.

Andrés Sebastián Díaz Ponce

Andrés Sebastián holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from the University of the Americas, Ecuador. He founded Libertario, a Spanish-speaking community that promotes the ideas of liberty in Latin America, and he collaborates with the Ecuadorian liberal think tank Libre Razón. Follow @asdp250.

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