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Venezuela Maduro Gains Control Over Oil Contracts Amid Purge

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during an event with supporters in Caracas, Nov. 15, 2017.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during an event with supporters in Caracas, Nov. 15, 2017.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday gained more powers over the OPEC member's oil contracts, as a deepening purge looks set to strengthen the leftist leader's control of the key energy sector amid a debilitating recession.

A months-long crackdown on alleged graft in Venezuela's oil industry has led to the arrest of some 65 former executives, including two prominent officials who used to lead both the oil ministry and state oil company PDVSA.

Corruption has long plagued Venezuela, home to the world's biggest crude reserves, but the socialist government usually said "smear campaigns" were behind accusations of widespread graft.

Maduro has recently changed his tack, blaming "thieves" and "traitors" for the country's imploding economy.

PDVSA's new boss, former housing minister Major General Manuel Quevedo, said on Sunday that all oil service contracts and executive positions would be reviewed by Maduro as of Monday.

"There aren't going to be any more contracts backed by the board to keep pillaging, as has happened in some instances," said Quevedo during a visit to the ailing Paraguana Refining Center.

Further details were not immediately available. PDVSA did not respond to a request for information.

Maduro said former energy minister Ali Rodriguez had been appointed honorary president of PDVSA and had met with Quevedo for six hours over the weekend.

Art, wine, gold chess set

The most recent high-profile sweep saw Diego Salazar, a relative of former oil czar Rafael Ramirez, detained on Friday on charges of helping launder some around 1.35 billion euros to Andorra.

During his Sunday television program, Maduro flashed a painting by Venezuelan painter Armando Reveron and pictures of luxury goods, including bottles from an alleged 300,000-euro wine cellar and a gold chess set, he said belonged to Salazar.

"Thieves!" said Maduro, banging his fist on the table, during the near five-hour broadcast. "All your assets must be expropriated," he added, stressing that the money should go to state coffers.

Reuters was not able to confirm Maduro's accusations or contact a representative for Salazar.

His detention has spurred speculation that authorities are after Ramirez, who was the powerful head of PDVSA and the oil ministry for a decade before Maduro demoted him as an envoy to the United Nations in 2014.

A protracted rivalry between Maduro and Ramirez has increased in recent weeks, insiders say, especially after Ramirez wrote online opinion articles criticizing Maduro's handling of Venezuela's economy.

Maduro fired Ramirez last week and summoned him back to Caracas, according to people familiar with the clash.

When asked by Reuters on Whatsapp whether Ramirez was being investigated, chief state prosecutor Tarek Saab on Sunday replied there were "no exceptions" in the investigation.

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