Venezuela appoints alleged drug trafficker El Aissami as oil minister


Caracas (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday appointed his economy vice president, Tareck El Aissami, who has been indicted in the United States on drug trafficking charges, as oil minister, amid acute fuel shortages across the country.

Maduro named Asdrubal Chavez, cousin of the late President Hugo Chavez, as interim president of state oil firm PDVSA, according to the appointments published in the government’s official gazette.

Venezuela’s 1.3 million-barrel-per-day refining network has all but collapsed after years of under-investment. U.S. sanctions aimed at ousting Maduro have strangled fuel imports, prompting Venezuelans to either wait hours outside gas stations or turn to the pricey black market.

Venezuelans reported paying above $2 per liter ($7.57 per gallon) for gasoline last week, one of the world’s highest rates and a dramatic reversal for an OPEC nation that long boasted of having the world’s cheapest fuel.

El Aissami replaces Manuel Quevedo, a national guard general who had no industry experience when he took on the dual role of PDVSA president and oil minister in 2017. His appointment marks a blow to an era of military control at PDVSA, a period that has coincided with a dramatic drop in output from over 2 million barrels per day in 2017 to around 700,000 today.

In March, the U.S. Justice Department charged El Aissami and 14 other current and former Venezuelan officials with narco-terrorism, corruption and drug trafficking. El Aissami’s indictment said he violated U.S. sanctions and received payments for facilitating drug shipments.

The Trump administration announced a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to El Aissami’s arrest.

El Aissami has denied the charges.

He will reorganize the Oil Ministry with the aim of adopting the “necessary measures to guarantee national energy security to protect the industry against external and internal attacks,” the official gazette said.

Since February, El Aissami has been chairman of Maduro’s commission to restructure the oil industry. Asdrubal Chavez, a former president of U.S. refiner Citgo with substantial oil industry experience, was also a member.

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