20:26 GMT28 February 2021
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    Venezuela’s oil sector, the primary source of the country’s foreign exchange earnings, suffered major losses after Washington recognised opposition figure Juan Guaido as the country’s “interim president”, slapped crippling sanctions on the nation’s ability to export its black gold, and seized tens of billions in assets held abroad.

    Venezuela has given five-year jail sentences to Alfredo Chirinos and Aryenis Torrealba, two former executives of state oil giant PDVSA, for “disclosing or supplying” sensitive information about the company’s operations to the United States.

    Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced the decision late last week, specifying that Chirinos and Torrealba were sentenced Thursday following seven trial hearings and the provision of extensive witness testimony and documentary evidence.

    Chirinos served as the company’s special operations chief, while Torrealba was general manager of crude operations. Both were said to have had access to confidential data about the company’s fuel oil inventories, refinery network, and routes of tankers that traded with the energy giant.

    The men were arrested in February 2020 on suspicion of leaking what the ruling said was “sensitive and confidential information from the oil industry, which resulted in the imposition of sanctions by the US government, which have caused significant financial damage to the industry by limiting the marketing of its products internationally”.

    PDVSA Purge

    The former executives’ arrest, trial, and sentencing is part of a larger and ongoing purge of PDVSA. In December, President Nicolas Maduro accused Washington of bribing “hundreds” of corrupt employees in the country’s oil and gas sector, including high-level officials. “We are gradually clearing the industry of these agents”, Maduro assured.

    In November 2020, Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal sentenced six former US executives of CITGO, a subsidiary of PDVSA, on corruption charges. The sentences included a 13-year prison term for Jose Pereira, CITGO’s former president, on charges of embezzlement, criminal association, and money laundering. Other officials were sentenced to terms ranging from eight to ten years. The officials were arrested in late 2017 after attending a meeting at PDVSA’s Caracas office.

    In July 2020, the Venezuelan Prosecutor General’s Office formally asked Italy to extradite former PDVSA chief Rafael Ramirez to face criminal charges in connection with alleged embezzlement, evasion of proper bidding procedures, and criminal association. Ramirez headed the company from 2004 to 2014, and served as energy minister between 2002 and 2014.

    Venezuela’s energy sector has been hit hard by sanctions introduced by the United States in January 2019 in the wake of Juan Guaido’s proclamation of himself as the country’s "interim president". The restrictions included threats of secondary sanctions against companies and countries doing business with the Latin American energy giant, as well as the seizure of tens of billions of dollars in PDVSA and CITGO assets abroad. Part of these assets were transferred to Guaido’s opposition forces, and Caracas claims some of the wealth has since been embezzled.

    Last month, a US judge authorised the expropriation of $1.4 billion in CITGO assets to Canadian gold mining company Crystallex, notwithstanding Treasury Department restrictions against such action. The $1.4 billion award was issued following a decade-long dispute over Caracas’ 2008 nationalisation of a gold mine belonging to the company. The Venezuelan government blasted the decision as “fraudulent” and “arbitrary”.

    Price of Sanctions

    The sanctions slapped on Venezuela by the US in 2019 were just the latest, most damaging round of restrictions imposed against that country’s democratically elected socialist government. Last year, the Latin American Geopolitical Strategic Center think tank calculated that the US-led financial blockade of Venezuela had cost the nation up to $350 billion in lost earnings between 2013 and 2017 alone, equivalent to over $12,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.

    Venezuelan officials have repeatedly accused Washington of seeking to overthrow the current government to allow US business to get its hands on the country’s substantive energy and mineral wealth, including the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

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