Rule of law has crumbled in Venezuela: jurists’ group

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro greets people next to his wife Cilia Flores during a rally in support of the government in Caracas, Venezuela May 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The rule of law has crumbled in Venezuela under the government of President Nicolas Maduro which has usurped the powers of the legislative and judicial branches, an international legal watchdog said on Monday.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called on Venezuelan authorities to reinstate democratic institutions as part of a solution to the political, economic and humanitarian crisis engulfing the OPEC member.

The government and a compliant Supreme Court effectively stripped the National Assembly of most powers after the opposition won a majority in 2015 elections.

Lawmakers loyal to Maduro generally do not attend the sessions but go to meetings of the Constituent Assembly, a legislative body that meets in the same building.

The Constituent Assembly, created in a 2017 election boycotted by the opposition, is controlled by the ruling Socialist Party and its powers supersede the National Assembly.

Sam Zarifi, ICJ secretary-general, presented its latest report on Venezuela: “No Room for Debate”.

“The focus of this report is on the usurpation of the authority of the legislative by the government in Venezuela. This comes after the judiciary was taken over,” he told a news briefing.

“It seems quite clear that in response to the loss of direct support in the legislative assembly, the government decided to completely trample on the principle of the rule of law really and separation of powers,” he said.

The Constituent Assembly was “formed improperly and illegitimately” and has gone far beyond its stated role, Zarifi said, adding: “In fact it seemed to do everything but really discuss a new Constitution”.

Rafael Chavero Gazdik, a professor of constitutional law at Universidad Central de Venezuela, said that the new body had not produced any work on a new draft charter.

“Basically it is a body that is helping the President to do whatever he wants without the rule of law,” he said.

“After two years we have not seen in Venezuela a single draft of any article for a new Constitution – not a single one.”

After their parliamentary immunity was stripped, four lawmakers of the National Assembly are in jail and another 22 have fled Venezuela, Chavero said.

Venezuela’s opposition will meet with representatives of Maduro’s government in Barbados for talks mediated by Norway, the parties involved said on Sunday, as part of efforts to resolve the political crisis.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by more than 50 governments, invoked the constitution in January to assume a rival presidency.

“Addressing the problem of the National Constituent Assembly is a crucial step in any political solution to the crisis that has gripped Venezuela,” ICJ’s Zarifi said, urging the government to engage with the opposition-led legislature.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Special Report: Why the military still stands by Venezuela’s beleaguered president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino speak during a meeting with military commanders, in Caracas, Venezuela June 3, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – One of the central mysteries of Venezuela’s slow-motion collapse: Why does the military continue to support Nicolas Maduro, the president who has led the once-prosperous South American country into poverty and chaos?

The answer, according to people familiar with Venezuela’s military structure, starts with Maduro’s late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, the charismatic caudillo who cemented strongman socialist rule in the nation of about 30 million people.

In a series of actions that began in 1999, the former lieutenant colonel and one-time coup leader began taming the military by bloating it, buying it off, politicizing it, intimidating the rank and file, and fragmenting the overall command.

Once he took office in 2013, Maduro handed key segments of the country’s increasingly ravaged economy to the armed forces. Select military officers took control of the distribution of food and key raw materials. A National Guard general and military deputies now manage the all-important national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA [PDVSA.UL].

The two leaders also embedded intelligence agents, with the help of Cuba’s security services, within barracks, former officers say, instilling paranoia and defusing most dissent before it happens. Intelligence agents have arrested and jailed scores of perceived troublemakers, including several high-profile officers, even for minor infractions.

The overhaul, former military officials say, created a jumbled and partisan chain of command. Top officers, grateful for perks and fearful of retribution, are often more preoccupied with pleasing Socialist Party chiefs than with national defense. Instead of drills and war games, some generals find themselves fielding calls to plant vegetables or clear garbage.

Many lower-ranking soldiers, destitute and desperate like most of Venezuela’s working class, have deserted the military in recent years, joining at least 4 million other fellow emigres seeking a better life elsewhere. But few senior officers have heeded the opposition’s call for rebellion, leaving the armed forces top-heavy, unwieldy and still standing by Maduro.

“The chain of command has been lost,” said Cliver Alcala, a former general who retired in 2013 and now supports the opposition from Colombia. “There is no way to know who is in charge of operations, who is in charge of administration and who is in charge of policy.”

Some commanders, like Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, a four-star general, are nearly as much a face of the administration as Maduro. Padrino is sanctioned by the United States for ensuring Maduro’s “hold on the military and the government while the Venezuelan people suffer,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Reuters was unable to reach Padrino or other senior officers mentioned in this article. Venezuela’s defense ministry didn’t reply to email or telephone inquiries. The country’s information ministry, responsible for government communications including those of the president, didn’t reply to Reuters either.

Padrino is hardly alone.

Consider the sheer number of officers awarded flag rank in Venezuela.

The country’s roughly 150,000 Army, Navy, Air Force and National Guard troops are a fraction of the more than 1 million who make up the U.S. armed forces. Yet Venezuela, with as many as 2,000 admirals and generals, now boasts as much as twice the top brass as the U.S. military – more than 10 times as many flag officers as existed when Chavez became president.

The estimate is according to calculations by former Venezuelan officers and the U.S. military.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro arrives for a military parade to celebrate the 196th anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo, next to his wife Cilia Flores and Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, in Caracas, Venezuela June 24, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro arrives for a military parade to celebrate the 196th anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo, next to his wife Cilia Flores and Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, in Caracas, Venezuela June 24, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

The result, government opponents say, is a bureaucratic and operational mess, even at the very top.

Padrino, for instance, is both a general and defense minister. But he can’t officially mobilize troops without the consent of Remigio Ceballos, an admiral who also reports directly to Maduro and heads the Strategic Operations Command, an agency created by Chavez to oversee deployments.

“You have a general in chief and an admiral in chief,” said Hebert Garcia, a retired general who once served under Maduro but now supports the opposition from Washington. “Which one are you supposed to obey?”

The armed forces could still turn on Maduro, particularly if popular outrage boils over and makes military support for the president untenable. Still, calls by opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in late April unsuccessfully sought to rally the troops against Maduro, thus far remain unheeded.

Guaido in May told reporters his efforts to convert troops are thwarted by the military’s fragmented structure and intimidation within its ranks. “What is preventing the break?” he asked. “The ability to speak openly, directly with each of the sectors. It has to do with the persecution inside the Socialist Party, inside the armed forces.”

To better understand the pressures and policies keeping the troops in Maduro’s camp, Reuters interviewed dozens of current and former officers, soldiers, military scholars and people familiar with Venezuelan security. In their assessment, the military has evolved into a torpid bureaucracy with few leaders capable of engineering the type of mass mutiny that Maduro’s opponents long for.

“REAL POWER”

Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” as Chavez dubbed his remaking of the country, itself has roots in military rebellion. Six years before he was elected president in 1998, Chavez led a failed coup against Carlos Andres Perez, a deeply unpopular president who Congress eventually forced from office.

Once in power, Chavez immediately took steps to enlist the military in his vision for a paternalistic, state-led economy that would share abundant oil wealth with long-neglected segments of Venezuela’s population.

With a new constitution in December 1999, Chavez stripped Congress of its oversight of promotion of senior officers. That gave the president ultimate authority to assign flag ranks and empower allied officers.

Because many state and local governments at the time were still controlled by rivals, Chavez also saw the military as a tool that could show his administration hard at work. A new program, “Plan Bolivar 2000,” ordered troops to fill potholes, clean highways, refurbish schools and carry out other public works.

The $114 million effort put sizeable sums at the discretion of commanders, giving officers a taste for a new kind of influence. “What Plan Bolivar 2000 taught officers was that real power doesn’t lie in commanding troops, but rather in controlling money,” said one retired general. The general, who served under Chavez and Maduro, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Soon, some of the funds began to disappear.

Miguel Morffe, a retired major, once worked as a captain in the remote northwestern region of La Guajira. He recalls receiving a request from superiors to provide materials for an unspecified schoolhouse. When Morffe told a lieutenant colonel that he didn’t understand where the supplies would be going, the superior told him: “I need those materials for something else.”

“The school didn’t exist,” Morffe concluded.

Military officials didn’t reply to questions about the alleged incident.

By 2001, a raft of corruption allegations plagued the Plan Bolivar program.

Chavez fired General Victor Cruz, the Army’s commander in charge of the program. Cruz denied wrongdoing and wasn’t charged with any crime at the time. Venezuelan authorities arrested him last year when press reports linked him to funds in an offshore account. A Caracas court in May ordered him to stand trial on charges of illicit enrichment.

Reuters couldn’t reach Cruz for comment or identify his legal counsel.

In 2002, Chavez said he would wind down Plan Bolivar 2000.

Regional elections, he told Chilean sociologist and political activist Marta Harnecker in an interview, had put more allies in mayoral and state offices, where they could now work in unison with the national government. The military, he said, would return to its normal business.

That April, however, a small group of top officers emboldened Chavez to further remake the armed forces. Encouraged by conservative leaders and wealthy elites unhappy with his leftist agenda, the officers staged a coup and briefly arrested Chavez.

But the coup unraveled. Within two days, Chavez was back in power.

He purged the top ranks. More importantly, he reined in several powerful offices, including the Defense Ministry. Henceforth, the ministry would manage military budgets and weapons procurement, but no longer control troops themselves. Chavez created the Strategic Operations Command, the agency that manages deployments.

The move, former officers say, jumbled the chain of command.

He also rethought overall strategy.

Increasingly concerned that Venezuela’s oil wealth and leftist policies would make it a target for invasion, particularly by the United States, Chavez pushed for the military to integrate further with the government and society itself.

“We’re transforming the armed forces for a war of resistance, for the anti-imperialist popular war, for the integral defense of the nation,” he said at a 2004 National Guard ceremony.

Military leaders soon had to pledge their allegiance to Chavez and his Bolivarian project, not just the nation itself. Despite resistance from some commanders, the ruling party slogan, “Fatherland, Socialism or Death,” began echoing through barracks and across parade grounds.

As of 2005, another factor helped Chavez tighten his hold on power. Oil prices, years before fracking would boost global supply, soared along with the notion the planet’s reserves were dwindling. For most of the rest of his time in power, the windfall would enable Chavez to accelerate spending and ensure popular support.

Oil money also helped him strengthen relationships with like-minded countries, especially those seeking to counterbalance the United States. Venezuela purchased billions of dollars in arms and equipment from Russia and China. It secured medical and educational support through doctors, teachers and other advisors arriving from Cuba, the closest ally of all.

Cubans came with military know-how, too.

A “cooperation agreement” forged between Chavez and Fidel Castro years earlier had by now blossomed into an alliance on security matters, according to two former officers. Around 2008, Venezuelan officers say they began noticing Cuban officials working within various parts of the armed forces.

General Antonio Rivero, who the previous five years had managed Venezuela’s civil protection authority, says he returned to military activities that year to find Cuban advisors leading training of soldiers and suggesting operational and administrative changes.

The Cubans, he told Reuters, advised Chavez to rework the ranks, once built around strategic centers, into more of a territorial system, spreading the military’s presence further around the country. Rivero was stunned at one training session on military engineering. A Cuban colonel leading the session told attendees the meeting and its contents should be considered a state secret.

“What’s happening here?” Rivero said he asked himself. “How is a foreign military force going to possess a state secret?”

Rivero left Venezuela for the United States in 2014.

Cuban officials didn’t respond to requests from Reuters for comment.

The island’s influence soon would become apparent in day-to-day operations.

In Cuba, the military is involved in everything from public works to telecommunications to tourism. In Venezuela, too, ruling party officials increasingly began ordering officers to take part in activities that had little to do with military preparedness. Soldiers increasingly became cheap labor for governors and mayors.

In 2010, a former general working in the Andes, a western region on the Colombian border, was overseeing a complex mobilization of 5,000 troops for a month of combat training. The general spoke on condition that he not be named.

Another general, from a nearby command, called and asked him to halt the exercises. The state governor, the other officer told the general, wanted to reroute the troops – to install energy-efficient light bulbs in homes.

When the general refused, Army Commander Euclides Campos issued a formal order to scrap the training. “This would sound shocking to any military professional, but it’s exactly how the Venezuelan armed forces work,” the former general said.

Reuters was unable to reach Campos for comment.

“TRAITORS NEVER!”

Chavez, stricken by cancer, died in 2013. Maduro, his vice president and hand-picked replacement as the Socialist party candidate for president, won the election to succeed him.

The new president continued naming new flag officers and appointed even more military officials to helm agencies. By 2017, active and former military figures had held as many as half of Maduro’s 32 cabinet posts, according to Citizen Control, a Venezuelan non-profit that studies the armed forces.

In 2014, just as a collapse in oil prices torpedoed Venezuela’s economy, Maduro further fragmented the military structure.

Following the advice of the Cubans, former military officers say, Maduro created new command centers nationwide. He appointed senior officers to run new commands in each of the 23 states and Caracas, the capital, as well as eight regional commands above those. His public speeches are now increasingly peppered with terms like ZODI and REDI, acronyms for the new commands.

Near military facilities, new brass abounded.

“Before, seeing a general was like seeing a bishop or an archbishop, he was an important figure,” recalls Morffe, the retired major. “Not long ago, I saw one in an airport. He walked past a group of soldiers and they didn’t even salute.”

Flag officers now oversee some areas that were once slivers of larger commands, in areas so remote that they have few human inhabitants. The largest landmass in the Western Maritime and Insular Command, overseen by an admiral, is a rocky archipelago with little vegetation and no permanent residents.

The officer, Vice Admiral Rodolfo Sanchez, didn’t respond to a Reuters phone call to his office.

The lopsided, partisan structure has led to mission creep, former officers say.

In the Andes command, which oversees three states, six generals once oversaw roughly 13,000 troops, according to officers familiar with the region. Today, at least 20 generals are now managing ranks that have dwindled to as few as 3,000 soldiers, according to officers familiar with the region.

Last August, three of the generals, including the regional commander, met with municipal officials in the state of Tachira, a hotbed of protests against Maduro in recent years. Days earlier, the government had said explosives used in a drone attack on a military parade in Caracas had been smuggled through Tachira from Colombia.

“All of us together can solve this problem,” Major General Manuel Bernal told the assembled officers and a group of onlookers, including a Reuters reporter.

A Venezuelan soldier loads a truck with garbage at a street in San Cristobal, Venezuela, March 27, 2019. Picture taken March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

A Venezuelan soldier loads a truck with garbage at a street in San Cristobal, Venezuela, March 27, 2019. Picture taken March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Bernal wasn’t talking about the drones, however. Or even national security, once a major issue in the Andean region, where Colombia’s guerrilla war long posed a threat. Instead, the generals had gathered to talk about trash overflowing at a landfill. They deployed soldiers to clear garbage and put out a fire there.

A communications official for the Andes command didn’t respond to a Reuters request to speak with Bernal about the episode.

Military bosses show few signs of shying away from such directives. In the weeks since Guaido’s failed call to arms, senior officers have reiterated their commitment to Maduro.

“We will continue fulfilling our constitutional duties, fulfilling duties under your command,” Defense Minister Padrino told Maduro alongside troops gathered in Caracas in early May.

“Loyal always!” Padrino shouted.

The troops responded in unison: “Traitors never!”

(Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Paraguana, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Vivian Sequera in Caracas, and Phil Stewart in Washington. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Deputy of Venezuela’s Guaido arrested and dragged away by tow truck

FILE PHOTO: Juan Guaido (R), new President of the National Constituent Assembly and lawmaker of the Venezuelan opposition party Popular Will (Partido Voluntad Popular), and lawmaker Edgar Zambrano of Democratic Action party (Accion Democratica), leave the congress after Guaido's swearing-in ceremony, in Caracas, Venezuela January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero/File Photo

By Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan intelligence agents detained opposition leader Juan Guaido’s congressional deputy on Wednesday, using a tow truck to drag his vehicle away with him inside, prompting the U.S. government to warn of “consequences” if he was not released.

The SEBIN intelligence agency seized Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which Guaido heads, in the first arrest of a lawmaker since Guaido tried to spark a military uprising last week to bring down President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

Venezuela’s pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly agreed on Tuesday to strip Zambrano and six other lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity to allow their future prosecution. The opposition does not recognize the assembly’s decisions.

The Supreme Court had earlier accused those lawmakers of conspiracy, rebellion and treason, and accused another three opposition legislators of the same crimes on Wednesday.

The opposition says Maduro has stacked the court with his own supporters, while the U.S. government this week threatened to sanction all its members.

The U.S. government’s Venezuelan embassy, now based in Washington, said Zambrano’s “arbitrary detention” was “illegal and inexcusable.”

“Maduro and his accomplices are those directly responsible for Zambrano’s security. If he is not immediately freed, there will be consequences,” the embassy said on Twitter.

An attempted uprising last week led by Guaido, recognized by the United States and other Western countries as the rightful head of state, failed to dislodge Maduro, as have a series of U.S. sanctions against his government. Maduro decried the events as an attempted coup.

“One of the principal conspirators of the coup has just been arrested,” Diosdado Cabello, head of the Constituent Assembly, said in comments broadcast on state television.

“They will have to pay before the courts for the failed coup that they attempted,” he said.

‘KIDNAPPED’

Zambrano said on Twitter at about 6.40 pm local time (2240 GMT) SEBIN agents had surrounded his vehicle outside the headquarters of his Democratic Action party in Caracas’ La Florida district.

“We were surprised by the SEBIN, and after refusing to let us leave our vehicle, they used a tow truck to forcibly transfer us directly to the (SEBIN headquarters) Helicoide,” he said. It was not yet clear if Zambrano was already at the Helicoide.

Guaido said on Twitter: “The regime has kidnapped the first vice president.”

Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro as illegitimate after he secured re-election last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent. Maduro has overseen the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, which has shrunk by half over the past five years, forcing more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate.

The Constituent Assembly removed Guaido’s parliamentary immunity in early April. Authorities have not tried to arrest him since then, but Maduro has said he will “face justice.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened Maduro’s government with a harsh response should it ever detain Guaido.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s head, Maikel Moreno, rebuffed the U.S. government’s threats to sanction his court’s members if they did not reject Maduro’s government and Guaido.

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Moreno and the seven principal members of the court’s constitutional chamber in 2017 for rulings that “usurped the authority” of the National Assembly.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the Trump administration would soon sanction the 25 remaining members of the court. Pence said the United States was lifting economic sanctions on a former Venezuelan general who turned against Maduro in order to encourage other Maduro allies to follow suit.

The head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, said: “We demand the SEBIN stop the intimidation, respect the lawmakers’ parliamentary immunities, and immediately release Edgar Zambrano.”

(Reporting by Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)

Venezuela’s Guaido risks arrest as he returns home to defy Maduro

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, waves next to his wife Fabiana Rosales while leaving a hotel in Salinas, Ecuador March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Tapia

By Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido plans to risk arrest by returning home on Monday, after he ignored a court-imposed travel ban and toured Latin American countries to boost support for his campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

Guaido’s return, details of which his team have kept under wraps, could become the next flashpoint in his duel with Maduro as he seeks to keep up momentum and spur his international backers to further isolate the socialist government.

His arrest could allow the opposition to highlight how the Maduro administration represses political foes and prompt the United States to impose even harsher sanctions. But it could also strip the opposition of a public figurehead who has brought unity after years of infighting.

Guaido, who is recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state by most Western countries, said on Sunday he would undertake the “historic challenge” of returning in time to lead protests on Monday and Tuesday during the Carnival holiday period, an unusual time for demonstrations.

By 10.30 a.m. local time, Guaido still had not appeared in Caracas, though in a recorded message posted on his Twitter account he said he was en route to his home and he would be with “the men and women I most admire” in a few hours.

“Upon my arrival, whatever path the dictator takes, we are going to continue,” he said.

Guaido secretly left Venezuela for Colombia, in violation of a Supreme Court order, to coordinate efforts there on Feb. 23 to send humanitarian aid into Venezuela to alleviate widespread shortages of food and medicine.

But troops loyal to Maduro blocked convoys of aid trucks sent from Colombia and Brazil, leading to clashes that killed at least six people along the Brazilian border, rights groups say.

From Colombia, he then traveled to Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay to shore up Latin American support for a transition government that would precede free and fair elections.

On Sunday, he departed by plane from the Ecuadorean coastal town of Salinas but has not appeared publicly since, beyond a Twitter broadcast that evening from an undisclosed location.

To arrive in Caracas by Monday morning, he could take commercial flights from Bogota, Panama City or Miami. A Reuters reporter on the one morning flight from Bogota said he was not on it.

Maduro, who has called Guaido a coup-mongering U.S. puppet and denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, has said his arrest depends on the justice system.

“He can’t just come and go. He will have to face justice, and justice prohibited him from leaving the country,” he told ABC News last week.

The United States has warned Maduro of the consequences of arresting Guaido and the Treasury imposed new sanctions on Friday targeting Venezuelan military officials.

“Any threats or acts against his safe return will be met with a strong and significant response from the United States and the international community,” U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Twitter on Sunday.

After the military blocked the aid convoys, Guaido proposed that “all options be kept open” to topple Maduro, but foreign military intervention is seen as unlikely and his international backers are instead using a mix of sanctions and diplomacy.

The government has jailed dozens of opposition leaders and activists for seeking to overthrow Maduro through violent street demonstrations in 2014 and 2017, including Guaido’s mentor, Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas, from Marco Bello in Bogota and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Susan Thomas)

Exclusive: As Venezuelans suffer, Maduro buys foreign oil to subsidize Cuba

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Amuay refinery complex which belongs to the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA in Punto Fijo, Venezuela November 17, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Marianna Parraga and Jeanne Liendo

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Venezuela’s state-run oil firm PDVSA has bought nearly $440 million worth of foreign crude and shipped it directly to Cuba on friendly credit terms – and often at a loss, according to internal company documents reviewed by Reuters.

The shipments are the first documented instances of the OPEC nation buying crude to supply regional allies instead of selling them oil from its own vast reserves.

Venezuela made the discounted deliveries, which have not been previously reported, despite its dire need for foreign currency to bolster its collapsing economy and to import food and medicine amid widespread shortages.

The open-market oil purchases to subsidize one of Venezuela’s few remaining allies underscores its increasing global isolation and the disintegration of its energy sector under socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

The purchases came as Venezuela’s crude production hit a 33-year low in the first quarter – down 28 percent in 12 months. Its refineries are operating at a third of capacity, and its workers are resigning by the thousands.

(For a graphic on Venezuela’s rising oil imports and falling exports, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2wHCTUF )

PDVSA bought the crude for up to $12 per barrel more than it priced the same oil when it shipped to Cuba, according to prices on internal documents reviewed by Reuters. But Cuba may never pay cash for the cargoes because Venezuela has long accepted goods and services from Cuba in return for oil under a pact signed in 2000 by late presidents Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.

PDVSA, the Venezuela government and the Cuba government did not respond to requests for comment.

Venezuela’s government has previously said it only imports oil to blend with its own tar-like crude to improve quality and create an exportable product, or to feed its refinery in Curacao. But hundreds of PDSVA documents examined by Reuters detailing imports and exports, dated from January 2017 to May of this year, show the company is now buying crude at market prices to deliver to allies – in shipments that never pass through Venezuela.

The subsidized deliveries are aimed at maintaining political support from Cuba, one of a dwindling group of Venezuela allies, according to diplomats, politicians and PDVSA executives.

“Maduro is giving away everything he can because these countries’ backing, especially from Cuba, is all the political support he has left,” said a former top Venezuelan government official who declined to be identified.

Caracas has come under increasing international pressure as the United States, the European Union and Canada have sanctioned Venezuela for what they see as Maduro’s attempts to cement a dictatorship.

As Venezuela spends on oil imports, it has imported less of everything else its citizens desperately need. Venezuela’s spending on non-oil imports plunged from nearly $46 billion in 2011 to $6 billion in 2017, according Venezuela Central Bank data and Ecoanalitica, a Caracas-based economic research organization.

The oil PDVSA procured for Cuba was Russian Urals crude, the documents show, a variety well-suited for Cuban refineries constructed from Soviet-era equipment.

PDVSA bought the crude from Chinese, Russian and Swiss firms – not for cash, but a pledge that PDVSA would deliver other oil shipments later, the documents show.

That adds to Venezuela’s already towering debts of oil to state-owned firms in Russia and China, which together have extended Venezuela’s government more than $60 billion in oil-for-loan deals that have propped up its budget amid declining exports and lower oil prices.

“It’s nonsense to import oil to keep subsidized exports flowing,” said Ecoanalitica President Asdrubal Oliveros.

PETRO-DIPLOMACY

Venezuela’s socialist government has long used oil for domestic and international political ends, subsidizing goods and services at home and currying favor across the region with oil deliveries on generous terms.

Venezuela’s oil supply arrangements have helped soften international political censure of Maduro’s government.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which includes most Western Hemisphere nations, last year took up a motion seeking to pressure Venezuela to hold free elections, liberate political prisoners and declare a humanitarian crisis.

The effort was defeated when 12 countries that have received regular oil shipments from Venezuela in recent years – about a third of the OAS membership – opposed it or refused to vote. Eventually, the OAS passed a watered-down motion urging free and fair elections.

Venezuela has avoided formal OAS condemnation “thanks to the support of the bloc of Caribbean nations that have benefited from its subsidized oil and development programs for years,” said Michael Fitzpatrick, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said on April 30 during a talk at the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank in Washington.

Most of those countries are members of Venezuela’s Petrocaribe trade pact, launched in 2005, which has granted up to 16 Caribbean and Central American states with oil supplies on favorable terms.

OAS President Luis Almagro declined to comment through press office representative Monica Reyes.

El Salvador’s Economy Minister, Luz Estrella Rodriguez, said Petrocaribe and other pacts promoted by Venezuela had played an important role in her country’s development.

“Our country is very grateful,” she said. “The government of El Salvador, of course, is a friend and an ally of the Venezuelan government.”

El Salvador refused to vote last year on the OAS motion to condemn Venezuela.

Venezuela also supplied fuel last year to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Dominica, the documents show.

In total, members of oil trade pacts with Venezuela last year received at least 103,000 bpd of crude and refined products from PDVSA, the documents show, or about 6 percent of Venezuela’s exports.

FALLING OUTPUT, SHRINKING IMPORTS

The falling output of Venezuela’s refineries has also left the country increasingly dependent on fuel imports to meet domestic consumption.

The internal PDVSA data reviewed by Reuters shows Venezuela last year purchased some 180,000 barrels per day of foreign crude and refined products from PetroChina, Rosneft, Lukoil, Reliance Industries and other suppliers, 17 percent more than in 2016.

Those companies did not respond to requests for comment.

The purchases totaled more $4 billion, according to PDVSA records.

Last year, total oil-industry purchases, including equipment and services, consumed 45 percent of Venezuela’s total import spending, up from 13 percent in 2011, Ecoanalitica data shows. Energy imports totaled $5.4 billion out of $11.9 billion.

The resulting scarcity of food, medicine and employment has caused thousands of citizens to flee Venezuela. The pay of PDVSA workers now can’t cover the barest essentials because of the collapse of its currency, the bolivar.

“A worker’s salary is not even enough for a box of eggs,” said Hector Bertis, a PDVSA worker and union leader. “We go to the bank, and they give us 10,000 bolivars – less than what a transportation fare costs.”

(Reporting by Marianna Parraga in Houston and Jeanne Liendo in Calgary; additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Washington, Paula Rosales in San Salvador and Gary McWilliams in Houston; Editing by Gary McWilliams, Simon Webb and Brian Thevenot)

Venezuela police enter home of imprisoned opposition leader Lopez: wife

Lilian Tintori, wife of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, makes declarations to the media after casting her vote during a nationwide election for new governors in Caracas, Venezuela, October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan intelligence agents have entered the home of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is under house arrest for leading protests against President Nicolas Maduro, Lopez’s wife said on Twitter on Thursday.

The arrival of agents of the Sebin came hours after the New York Times published a story in which Lopez described how security forces have sought to prevent him from speaking with reporters.

“Sebin has entered our house and they remain here,” Lilian Tintori tweeted. “It is illegal and inhumane for Sebin to be inside our home with weapons, in the presence of our three children.”

The office of the vice presidency, which oversees Sebin, did not answer calls seeking confirmation and the Information Ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Lopez is the best-known of dozens of imprisoned opposition activists and leaders accused by Maduro of seeking to overthrow his government through street protests in 2014 and 2017.

He was arrested in 2014 and convicted of having incited protests against Maduro, who describes Lopez as “monster” responsible for dozens of deaths in demonstrations.

Lopez was granted house arrest in July. After calling on citizens to continue protests against Maduro in an internet video, he was taken back to jail in August but returned several days later to house arrest.

Opposition leaders and critics around the world have slammed the case against him as a sham and described the trial as a mockery of justice.

In 2015, one of the prosecutors who led the case said the conviction had been unfair and that he had been under constant pressure from superiors.

Former Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who was sacked last year, said in February she had been pressured about the case by high-ranking Socialist Party officials.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Bill Trott)