CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan authorities on Thursday arrested two former top officials in a widening corruption probe into the state-run oil industry that some see as an attempt by President Nicolas Maduro to consolidate power within his socialist party ahead of next year's presidential elections.
Former Oil Minister Eulogio del Pino and Nestor Martinez, ex-president of state oil company PDVSA, were arrested just four days after being removed by Maduro in a surprise cabinet shake-up. Both are accused of embezzling state funds, conspiracy and money laundering, Tarek William Saab, who took over as chief prosecutor following the ousting of one of Maduro's top critics, said at a press conference in Caracas.
As Saab was speaking, footage of the arrests was broadcast on state TV. In one sequence, military intelligence agents wearing ski masks with assault rifles drawn knock on the residence of Del Pino, who calmly opens the door and consents to being handcuffed while dressed in a jersey of Venezuela's national soccer team.
Saab said that the arrests fulfill a government pledge to assure Venezuela's vast oil wealth is spent on the poor and isn't pilfered by corrupt officials with mansions and yachts in the U.S. While corruption in Venezuela is rampant, officials are rarely held accountable — a major irritant to Venezuelans struggling to eat three meals a day amid widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation.
"What we're doing will boost the people's morale," said Saab, adding that 15 other PDVSA managers and officials tied to the oil probe had been arrested in the past 24 hours and a total of 65 since August. They include six executives of PDVSA's Houston-based subsidiary Citgo, five of whom hold American passports.
Del Pino and Martinez, both U.S.-educated industry veterans, were replaced Sunday by a high-ranking general with no experience in an oil industry that's the source of virtually all of Venezuela's foreign currency earnings.
Both men are also proteges of former oil czar Rafael Ramirez, who headed PDVSA and served as oil minister for a decade until becoming Venezuela's ambassador to the United Nations in 2014.
In a rare display of divisions in the ruling socialist party, Ramirez has increasingly spoken out against Maduro's handling of the economy, even while staring down public attacks from prominent government loyalists. On Wednesday, he was reportedly fired from his U.N. post, although nobody in the government has confirmed his dismissal. The mission's office said he could not be reached for comment Thursday.
"I'm disappointed that no type of constructive criticism is allowed, and also the fact that some comrades who know me well are victims of the right-wing's manipulations," he wrote in an essay titled "Stepping Firmly: Is it ethical to remain silent?" published Sunday on the Aporrea website, a forum for Venezuelan leftists.
Ramirez, who was close to the late Hugo Chavez and has long harbored presidential ambitions, is believed to be the ultimate target of the PDVSA housecleaning as well as an ongoing probe in the U.S. that has already led to the arrest of more than 10 individuals for paying bribes and kickbacks, including two former close aides to Ramirez arrested last month in Spain.