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Javier TOVAR

Venezuela arrests: an anti-corruption crusade or political purge?

An entrance to the headquarters of Venezuela's state oil giant, known as PDVSA, displays portraits of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) and current President Nicolas Maduro (R) . ©AFP

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela has launched an anti-corruption probe of state oil firm PDVSA and other related government bodies that has seen 51 people arrested, including top government officials.

"We're going with everything, those who fall will fall," said President Nicolas Maduro.

In a country ranked 177th out of 180 by Transparency International in its corruption perception index, is this an anti-corruption crusade, or a political purge?

Who is in the crosshairs?

The first arrests, announced on March 19, related to close allies of Tareck El Aissami, a powerful figure in the ruling regime who until that point was oil minister.

El Aissami has kept a low profile since resigning and Attorney General Tarek William Saab refuses to confirm whether or not he is under investigation.

One of those detained was Antonio Perez, the PDVSA vice-president.Another was Hugo Cabezas, who was a close ally of late former president Hugo Chavez.

Others are Pedro Maldonado, the president of the corporation responsible for exploiting minerals such as gold, diamonds, iron and bauxite, and Nestor Astudillo, head of the state Orinoco Steel company.

All have appeared in court dressed in orange jump suits.

Saab said on Wednesday "there could be more arrests."

Political affair?

"It's a political purge," political scientist Ana Milagros Parra told AFP."You shouldn't view it as anything extraordinary."

Milagros said it was happening because of "the need to eliminate or remove from the circle of power people who represent in one way or another a threat (to the government) or are not in line."

That is a claim passionately rejected by Saab.

"Since when is corruption, embezzlement a political act?Where is the ideology there?Is stealing an ideology?No!" he said.

For Alberto Aranguibel, an analyst with ties to the government, it is "courageous" to tackle corruption and in a newspaper article he criticized the idea that the state is "one single organ equally devoured by the cancer of corruption."

But other experts disagree.

"Within the government there are factions and these factions are clashing," said Benigno Alarcon, director of the Center for Political and Government Studies at the Andres Bello Catholic University.

"When you see the opportunity to get rid of an opponent or a faction, then you get rid of them because power is a zero-sum game."

According to Alarcon, El Aissami was up against a group headed by Vice-President Delcy Rodriguez and her brother Jorge, the parliamentary president.

Why oil?

The public prosecutor's office says 34 of the 51 people arrested are linked to the oil industry, the economic vehicle on which Venezuela is totally dependent.

Venezuela sits on the world's largest proven oil reserves but while it once produced more than three million barrels a day, that has dropped to less than one million following years of mismanagement.

One of those arrested, Joselit Ramirez, was in charge of the entity that manages oil industry funds through crypto assets, a key policy used by the South American country to circumvent US sanctions.

That also provides an opportunity to divert funds.

This is not the first scandal or investigation linked to Venezuela's multibillion-dollar oil industry.

Saab said his office had investigated 31 "corruption schemes" since 2017, for which more than 250 former officials and financial operators have been tried.

Those resulted in the arrest of dozens of PDVSA employees and two former oil ministers, Nelson Martinez, who died in detention, and Eulogio del Pino.

Rafael Ramirez, another who was a close Chavez ally, is accused of corruption when he was oil minister (from 2002 to 2014) and PDVSA president (from 2004 to 2014).

He fled to Italy and Venezuelan authorities have requested his extradition.

"Whoever is attacking me should think for a moment, just a moment, why did Chavez have me by his side for 12 years?" Ramirez wrote.

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