Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro named Tareck El Aissami, a suspected Hezbollah supporter and US fugitive, as oil minister on Monday.
Alongside El Aissami, Asdrúbal Chávez, a cousin of the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez, was appointed as head of state-run oil giant PDVSA. The appointments were published in the official gazette and announced on state television. 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, which sits on the world’s largest petroleum reserves, collapsed by 65 percent.
The shakeup comes amid crashing global oil prices and follows a two-decade collapse of crude production at Venezuela’s state-run oil firm, which today pumps an amount equal to 19 percent of levels seen when the late President Chávez took power in 1999. Critics blame rampant corruption and mismanagement.
Venezuelans in recent weeks have experienced critical gasoline shortages and mile-long gas lines lasting days even in the capital of Caracas, which is usually spared the worst of the shortages seen across the nation.
In a bid to meet domestic gasoline demand, Venezuela has turned to Iran, receiving the first of several shipments of a key chemical catalyst needed to convert the South American nation’s crude to fuel.
Venezuelan opposition groups have long accused El Aissami of repressing dissent, participating in drug trafficking rings, and supporting Iranian proxy group Hezbollah.
El Aissami is also alleged to have provided Hezbollah affiliates with Venezuelan passports and IDs during his tenure at Venezuela’s Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace.
The former vice president of Venezuela, El Aissami, 45, is a Venezuelan of Syrian and Lebanese descent, and has been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and features on the US custom’s top 10 most-wanted list as a specially designated narcotics trafficker.
El Aissami was indicted for the second time by a US federal court last month for being part of the alleged narcoterrorist conspiracy alongside Maduro. Authorities offered a $10 million bounty for information leading to El Aissami’s arrest and $15 million for Maduro’s arrest.
Venezuela is home to the world’s largest oil reserves, but a political, economic, and social crisis has brought ruin on its citizens. The US and a coalition of nearly 60 countries have pressed on Maduro to stand down, with many recognizing opposition politician Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
Around 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country, crossing into neighboring states, including Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, while the country’s public services, such as electricity and running water, fail.
With AP, Reuters
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