Venezuela president names PDVSA head Tellechea as new oil minister

A sculpture depicting an oil tower on a hand of Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA is pictured near the company's headquarters, in Caracas, Venezuela March 20, 2023. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria

CARACAS (Reuters) -Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday named the head of state oil company PDVSA, Pedro Rafael Tellechea, as the new oil minister, a day after his predecessor resigned amid an extensive corruption investigation focused on the company.

Former minister Tareck El Aissami resigned on Monday after the arrest of several government officials and judges in connection with graft investigations.

Sources with knowledge of the issue said more than 20 lower-level PDVSA officials have also been detained over recent days.

Tellechea has been head of PDVSA since January and ordered an audit into heavy losses suffered last year as tankers left the country without proper payments being made for cargo.

The government has provided scant details of alleged corruption at the company, but the PDVSA arrests are linked to an investigation into the cargoes, a source said on Monday.

PDVSA has accumulated $21.2 billion in accounts receivable, according to documents reported by Reuters earlier on Tuesday, after turning to dozens of little-known intermediaries to export its oil under U.S. sanctions.

The enormous amount of unpaid sales - about 84% of PDVSA's total value of invoiced shipments - explains Tellechea's freeze on supply contracts when he took over as head of PDVSA.

Tellechea first rose to prominence as head of state chemical company Pequiven, where he oversaw a boost in petrochemical exports that provided much-needed cash flow to Maduro's administration.

He kept that post even as he ran PDVSA. It was unclear whether a successor or successors would take over those jobs.

Appearing alongside heavyweights from his cabinet and the ruling PSUV party on Monday, including Vice-President Delcy Rodriguez and PSUV second-in-command Diosdado Cabello, Maduro said he plans to restructure PDVSA, but did not provide details.

Maduro said his government is "going to the root" of corruption.

It is not the first time the government has promised a crackdown on alleged PDVSA corruption. Executives and two former presidents of the company were arrested in 2017, while in 2018 authorities detained several executives for administrative irregularities.

El Aissami said he would fully support the investigations, but sources close to the ruling party said his departure is evidence of a power struggle among officials close to Maduro.

The ruling party-controlled National Assembly earlier on Tuesday unanimously revoked the immunity from prosecution of a legislator who is a close ally of El Aissami.

El Aissami has served as vice president and as a minister and is under U.S. sanction for alleged connections to drug trafficking, which he denies.

Tellechea's appointment is part of "process of transformation," Maduro said on Twitter, accompanied by a photo of himself and the new minister.

"Maximum efficiency comrade!" he said in the post.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago; additional reporting by Mayela Armas and Vivian Sequera; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Robert Birsel and Lincoln Feast.)

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