US sanctions three key members of the plot that trades Venezuelan oil | International

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A man walks in front of a PDVSA gas station in San Cristóbal (Venezuela).CARLOS EDUARDO RAMIREZ / Reuters

The United States continues to tighten the fence over the opaque network that has sold millions of barrels of Venezuelan crude throughout the planet. The Treasury Department on Tuesday frozen the financial assets of three central figures in the plot: the Italian Alessandro Bazzoni, the Swiss Phillip Apikian and the Venezuelan Francisco D’Agostino. An investigation by EL PAÍS and the portal He pointed out last weekend that the three businessmen, now sanctioned, have been key in the network led by Colombian Alex Saab, designated as the front man of Nicolás Maduro. That link has now been confirmed by the US authorities.

The White House follows the track of those sanctioned since May of last year. The consortium that orchestrated Saab, according to the Treasury, bought crude from the parastatal PDVSA at prices below the market and was in charge of transporting it and finding buyers thousands of kilometers from the Venezuelan coast in operations "below the radar". As detailed in the investigation published by this newspaper, the shipping documents avoided including the name of the Venezuelan oil company to evade the embargo that the United States imposed on Venezuela since 2017, for which a complex network of intermediaries and front companies in tax havens was used. from America, Europe and Asia. The oil consortium that has once again been targeted by Washington came to concentrate 40% of PDVSA's monthly exports.

The new sanctions package includes in the Treasury Department's so-called black list six oil tankers and 14 companies, all related to Bazzoni and his partners. Although he has come to deny any link with the Venezuelan oil company, Bazzoni has a long business history with PDVSA and is a shareholder of Element LTD, a company in Malta with energy interests in Venezuela since 2017. Element is one of the companies that have been sanctioned , together with subsidiaries in Malta, Panama and the United Kingdom. In this firm, the Italian businessman shares a partnership with the Venezuelan D'Agostino, brother-in-law of the opposition deputy Henry Ramos Allup.

Apikian is another important Bazzoni partner and owns Swissoil Trading, a Swiss company that has also come under the latest sanctions. The Bazzoni consortium, with extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of the international energy market, has focused on commercializing Venezuelan crude in countries in the Middle East and Asia, especially in China, Malaysia and Singapore.

"Those who facilitate the attempts by the illegitimate Maduro regime to turn around the sanctions imposed by the United States contribute to the corruption that consumes Venezuela," said Steven Mnuchin, head of the US Treasury. "The United States remains committed to persecuting those who allow the Maduro regime to abuse Venezuela's natural resources," he added in a statement.

This is the latest attempt by Washington to economically suffocate Maduro, which occurred within hours of Donald Trump leaving the presidency. The first blow to the network that moves PDVSA's oil was in June 2020, when the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) denounced a series of operations that were disguised as “humanitarian aid”, which involved the exchange of food and basic necessities in exchange for crude oil. The barters were little by little in the background and the authorities calculated that the operations exceeded 200 million euros. On that occasion, Washington targeted Saab and Joaquín Leal, a 28-year-old Mexican businessman, as well as two companies established in Mexico: Libre Abordo and Schlager Business Group.

The sanctions did not stop the outflow of oil from Venezuela, despite the embargo. It was from the second half of last year that Bazzoni's role became more relevant in the plot, by assuming shipments through its companies and distributing shipments to new interested parties, with companies registered in Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Leal and Bazzoni were partners. A month before being sanctioned by the United States, the Mexican businessman sought to buy five million barrels of oil, two million barrels of gasoline and another two million barrels of fuel oil each month from Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

The offer was made on behalf of Promotores del Fomento, a company established in Mexico. Leal owned 50% of the company and Bazzoni, the other half, according to the documents to which EL PAÍS and Swissoil even extended a letter of recommendation for Promotores del Fomento to achieve the deal with the Mexican oil company. "Business between the two companies is concentrated in high-density oil transactions, as well as in maritime shipments to Asia and the Middle East," reads the document, which ensures that both firms trade more than 100 million dollars each trimester. The letter is signed by Apikian, director of Swissoil and, at the same time, of Promotores del Fomento. The deal, however, did not materialize.

Although the Venezuelan Government has not responded to requests for comment after the publication of the investigation, sources from the Maduro Administration have denied that it was a dark business and assured that the lack of clarity of the contracts is a consequence of the problems that Venezuela has to do any business in the face of sanctions imposed by the United States. Bazzoni and Leal also did not provide an answer. Saab, detained in Cape Verde since last June, is awaiting an extradition request to the United States.

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