State controlled oil is at center of political conflict, Venezuelan diplomat says

While U.S. considers sanctions, political crisis simmers in Venezuela

HAVANA – From the Venezuelan embassy in Havana, Alí Rodríguez Araque attributed the political gridlock in Venezuela to a conflict centered on who controls the oil. 

Rodríguez served under former President Hugo Chávez and now under his successor President Nicolas Maduro he is the ambassador to Cuba.

Before becoming a diplomat, he was the president of Petróleos de Venezuela, the general secretary of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the minister of finance and minister of electric energy. 

"This is an opposition protected by Donald Trump who wants to raise levels of violence to who knows what extremes," Rodríguez said. 

Venezuelan activists estimate there have been at least 116 deaths linked to the ongoing nearly four months of protests against Maduro, 4,072 arrests and 15,000 wounded. Maduro's opposition blames the violence on a Cuban-style crackdown.

Protesters face repression from the National Guard and a government-trained paramilitary force known as the "colectivos." Venezuelan activists in South Florida believe Cuban agents are also involved. 


President Trump is listening to Cuban-American lawmakers who want Maduro out of office. Earlier this week, Trump threatened to take "strong and swift" economic actions. His decision would be a change from the individual sanctions issued by President Barack Obama's administration. 

Florida Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) want the Trump administration to ban Venezuelan crude oil imports.

Venezuela is the third-largest supplier of crude oil to the U.S. This would hurt Gulf Coast refineries and could lead to higher gas prices in the U.S. The White House's budget proposal included selling off half of the country's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the emergency oil stockpile. 

The "risk goes down dramatically when we have increased domestic production like we have," Mick Mulvaney, Trump's director of the office of management and budget, said during a press conference in May.  


Further pressure on oil prices would worsen the Bolivarian government's "petro-socialist" strategy. Without healthcare, government jobs, subsidies and education benefits, some loyalists are joining the opposition. 

Venezuela's oil-dependent economy suffered when oil prices continued to tumble below $30 a barrel.

Venezuelan bonds crashed this week and investors were preparing for the possibility of a default. The government has to pay about $5 billion in debt by the end of this year. The country is also indebted to Russia and China. 

Amid corruption, food and medicine shortages and a triple-digit inflation, the democrats want elections in 2018. This week protesters organized a 24-hour strike Thursday and held a symbolic election involving millions of voters Sunday.  

Maduro's response has been to push for a July 30 vote to elect the members of the specially assembly tasked with rewriting the 1999 constitution. 

"The Constitutional Assembly is no more than an inquiry of the people to update the constitution, to deepen and expand the achievements of the Venezuelan people and increase their participation," Rodríguez said.


In a push for a parallel state, Maduro's opponents in congress appointed 13 justices and 20 substitute judges to an alternative Supreme Court on Friday.

"The opposition rejects any proposal for dialogue," Rodríguez said. 

The top court is stacked with socialist loyalists who have sided with Maduro. The nearly four months of protests continued after the Supreme Court took away powers from the democratically-controlled congress and later reversed its decision. 

"We are not backing down! Venezuela will have a Supreme Court of Justice and institutions at the service of the people and not at the service of whatever government is in power," said Carlos Berrizbeitia, a congressman with the Democratic Unity Table coalition, during a ceremony held at a plaza in Caracas. 

The democratic coalition's position is that the Supreme Court justices were appointed illegally last year in a move by the socialist party to maintain control of the judicial branch of the government. The appointments were rushed before a 2015 election filled the majority of congressional seats with democrats. 

"Our justice system has been hijacked," said Sonia Medina, a congresswoman with the democratic Popular Will party.  "It is at the service of the regime. The judges have removed themselves from submitting to the rule of law, from the honor of judicial power, to repress, pursue, torture and jail."

Jose Mendoza, the president of the Supreme Court's constitutional chamber, accused the democrats in congress of treason. He said the appointment of the judges was illegal, because there weren't any Supreme Court openings. 


Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Argentina were among the South American members of Mercosur that called on Maduro to release political prisoners and asked him to give up on rewriting the constitution. 

During his press conference in Havana Friday, Rodríguez said there is a misunderstanding about the purpose and the way Maduro wants Venezuela to rewrite the constitution.

"We want the solution to be democratic and peaceful," Rodríguez said.

Rodríguez also said that the effort to rewrite the constitution "is about a little-known model in America, which tries to make the structure of power more horizontal." 

Maduro deployed some 185,000 troops around the country to make sure the July 30 election isn't sabotaged. And his opponents were planning a massive protest on Saturday, the 113th day of protests this year.

Local 10 News Andrea Torres contributed to this report from Miami. Weddle contributed from Caracas, Venezuela.  

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