The US Treasury Department extended economic sanctions imposed on PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-run oil company, to two of its subsidiaries in Central America, increasing the pressure on some of the staunchest foreign allies of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department confirmed to InSight Crime that sanctions had been slapped on Alba Petróleos in El Salvador and Albanisa in Nicaragua, both PDVSA’s subsidiaries under the control of the governing parties in each of the countries.
“As a result of our designation of PDVSA, the sanctions also apply to any entity in which PDVSA has direct or indirect ownership of 50 percent or more,” the spokesman said.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?
On January 28, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department issued sanctions against PDVSA stating that “Venezuela’s state-run oil company… has long been a vehicle for corruption… for the personal gain of corrupt Venezuelan officials and businessmen.”
Official documents of the Venezuelan oil company state that PDV Caribe, one of PDVSA’s subsidiaries, owns 60 percent of Alba Petróleos. The latter is a private-public venture funded in 2006 in El Salvador and is heavily linked to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN).
In Nicaragua, PDVSA owns 51 percent of Alba de Nicaragua (Albanisa). The other 49 percent is owned by municipalities under the control of Daniel Ortega’s regime, according to an investigation by Connectas, and confirmed by official documents InSight Crime had access to.
The sanctions state, among other things, that no American person or company can carry out any trade or transactions of any kind with these companies.
InSight Crime Analysis
These sanctions on PDVSA subsidiaries, Alba Petróleos and Albanisa, shine a spotlight once again on the Central American partners of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. This also ratchets up international pressure on Salvadorian and Nicaraguan interest groups which have supported Venezuela.
Since Alba Petróleos was founded, it has been under the control of José Luis Merino, known as "Ramiro Vásquez", a former FMLN guerrilla captain, who later became a federal deputy and government official.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime
Over the past decade, Merino has been scrutinized by multiple US agencies and his name is even mentioned in a file opened by the El Salvador Attorney General’s Office for alleged arms trafficking.
Merino, nonetheless, holds immunity in El Salvador, since the current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, appointed him deputy foreign affairs minister in 2016.
In 2017, 14 US congressmen requested that the Trump administration investigate Merino for “longstanding associations with organized crime networks subject to criminal investigations in the US.”
In March 2018, American authorities detained Fred Merino, brother of José Luis, in Houston in connection with the same investigation. Fred Merino has also long been a major figure within Alba Petróleos.
Venezuelan oil and the profits it has brought to Alba Petróleos have also served to finance FMLN election campaigns, it was confirmed last January, by a consultant close to the presidential candidate of said party for the February 3 elections.
Asdrúbal Chávez Jiménez was one of the first directors of Alba Petróleos, cousin of the late Hugo Chávez and one of the directors of PDVSA since 2004. Nicolás Maduro appointed him minister of oil and mining in 2014. That same year, according to an investigation led by US federal prosecutors, $1.2 billion were redirected from the Venezuelan state-run oil company to personal accounts of Maduro’s regimen officials.
In Nicaragua, according to Connectas, Albanisa was one of the main financial fronts for the regime of Daniel Ortega, who used Venezuelan money to feed the social aid programs and political alliances that have kept him in power.
Last July, the Treasury Department issued sanctions against Francisco López Centeno, Albanisa’s vice president and a close ally to Daniel Ortega, for “misappropriation of state assets…corruption related to government contracts...[and] bribery.”
In practice, the US sanctions will have different consequences for Alba Petróleos and Albanisa.
In El Salvador, the FMLN’s government ends on June 1 and the local oil company is almost bankrupt. This means the main implications for officials linked to this Venezuelan oil scandal will likely be prosecutions on corruption charges.
In Nicaragua, Albanisa’s financial drought and the sanctions it now faces adds pressure to the Ortega government, which has been in turmoil since launching a brutal repression campaign against its own citizens. However, Ortega has previously survived several rounds of sanctions coming from Washington DC.