President Nicolas Maduro named a powerful ally sanctioned by the US as a drug kingpin, along with a cousin of the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, to revamp Venezuela’s oil industry amid massive gasoline shortages.
Tareck El Aissami was appointed oil minister and Asdrubal Chavez tapped to head of state-run oil giant PDVSA. The appointments were published in the official gazette. The government has yet to comment.
Both positions were occupied until now by Gen. Manuel Quevedo, who during his 28-month tenure watched as oil production in the country sitting atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves collapsed by 65%.
The shakeup comes amid crashing global oil prices and follows a two-decade collapse of crude production at Venezuela’s state-ruin oil firm, which today pumps amounts equal to 19% of levels seen when the late President Chavez took power in 1999.
In recent weeks, Venezuelans have experienced critical gasoline shortages and mile-long lines at stations lasting days even in the capital of Caracas, which is normally spared the shortages seen across the nation.
Amid a deepening social and economic crisis, the U.S. and a coalition of nearly 60 nations are pressing Maduro to stand down. Those nations recognize opposition politician Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, arguing that Maduro’s election in 2018 was a sham because the most popular opposition candidates were banned from running.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently added El Aissami to its list of 10 most-wanted fugitives. He was sanctioned in 2017 as allegedly being a major drug trafficker and then was indicted two years later on allegations of violating those sanctions.
A key adviser to Maduro, El Aissami, 45, has served previously as vice president and most recently minister of industry. El Aissami is among dozens of Maduro allies sanctioned by the United States, while Chavez has not been targeted by the Trump administration with financial measures.
Risa Grais-Targow, the director for Latin America at Eurasia Group, said El Aissami’s appointment underscores Maduro’s efforts to inject more professional management of the country’s oil industry.
While PDVSA faces multiple challenges, from low crude prices to falling production, the new oil team’s first priority will be finding gasoline supplies that are on the verge of running out as US sanctions have made fuel imports harder to come by, she said.
“Within Chavismo, El Aissami is a relative pragmatist,” said Grais-Targow. “But it’s an extremely difficult situation on any front.” She also said U.S. sanctions on El Aissami are also likely to complicate his efforts.
“This tells you they’re throwing in the towel about a sanctioned individual being an impediment to future oil deals and engaging with foreign partners,” she said. “Or maybe it’s just an implicit recognition of their reality.”
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