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Newman George

Renuka Singh

Any nation that assists Venezuela in avoiding embargoes will face sweeping sanctions imposed by the United States.

The warning comes from the US government after it became aware of reports that a shipment of Paria Fuel Trading Company fuel that left Trinidad and Tobago’s shores for Aruba may have eventually been sent to Venezuela in defiance of US sanctions against that country.

The Aruban refinery is linked to Citgo, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA and reports surfaced last week that the fuel cargo was shipped to Venezuala after it arrived in Aruba.

As these reports continue to swirl, a US State Department representative has told Guardian Media that the United States has warned other nations against assisting embattled Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro and his regime.

“The United States has put foreign institutions on notice that they will face sanctions for being involved in facilitating illegitimate transactions that benefit Nicolas Maduro and his corrupt network,” the representative said.

“The United States condemns all attempts by Maduro and his supporters to steal resources from the Venezuelan people.”

The local arm of the US Embassy’s Public Affairs Section was much more vocal about the possible transfer of fuel from T&T to Venezuela.

In response to questions on Wednesday, the US Embassy said that the “US government was aware of reports indicating that a shipment of gasoline from Trinidad and Tobago may have gone to Venezuela”.

It noted that if T&T is found to have assisted Venezuela in getting fuel, it could open the country up to US sanctions.

“In general, entities and individuals risk exposure to US sanctions by operating in the Venezuelan oil sector,” the US Embassy’s Public Affairs Section said.

“This remains true regardless of how the transactions with Venezuela are conducted, whether using currency or in-kind exchanges and without respect to whether such conduct is otherwise legal under another country’s laws.”

The US had imposed sanctions on the Russian owned Rosneft Trading S.A and its subsidiary, the Swiss-based TNK Trading International, back in March for supporting Maduro. The US has also imposed sanctions on Cuban company Cubametales and its parent company Corporacion Panamericana and the Italian-owned PB Tankers for operating in the Venezuelan energy sector.

On April 21, a shipment of excess fuel left Pointe-a Pierre and was sold and shipped to Aruba.

The Aruban refinery has been mothballed since 2012 and was only recently transferred from PDVSA to the Aruban government after US sanctions dried up credit lines for the Venezuelan company. There have been unsubstantiated reports coming out of Venezuelan media that the fuel was bound for Venezuela.

Addressing this, the US Embassy said, “Some of the companies engaged in the Venezuelan oil trade business attempt to disguise the true nature of their business. These activities help them evade US and other countries’ efforts to prevent corrupt activities and to preserve assets for the benefit of the Venezuelan people.”

The Embassy confirmed that it will “actively investigate all efforts by (Venezuelan President Nicolas) Maduro and his supporters to circumvent US sanctions.

The Embassy added that the US government will also take “appropriate action” against those determined to be engaged in sanctionable activity as well as those found violating US sanctions.

Guardian Media reached out to US representatives after Paria Fuel Trading Company chairman Newman George confirmed a shipment of excess fuel left Trinidad on April 21 and was shipped to Aruba.

George confirmed a Swiss-based company, ES Euro Shipping S.A, contacted the Paria executive on March 28 to negotiate for the sale of the fuel.

The principal of ES Euro Shipping S.A is Wilmer Ruperti, a Venezuelan shipping tycoon who is also linked to Maroil Trading. Maroil Trading had close ties with former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and even reportedly ensured the country received fuel supplies in 2002.

Ruperti, according to George, was only able to get 150,000 barrels of fuel on April 21.

“We did our due diligence. Everything was above board,” George said in a telephone interview last Thursday.

“You have to understand that we buy in January for February and we buy in February for March. When the restrictions were imposed, it meant we had excess fuel because less people were travelling.”

There has also been speculation that Ruperti bought fuel from the US, stored it in tanks near the defunct Petrotrin and then transferred it to his vessel. But George said that was not true.

“We just don’t have the space to store fuel for anyone. We need all the storage space we have,” he said.

Since it began pursuing the story, Guardian Media has tried several times to contact several Government officials for comment on the matter, including Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, Energy Minister Franklin Khan and National Security Minister Stuart Young. However, there has been no response forthcoming from either of them.

Guardian Media sent the following questions to Minister Young:

1. Has T&T facilitated a shipment of fuel to Aruba?

2. Was this discussed during the visit with Venezuelan VP Delcy Rodriguez last month?

3. Was the head of PDVSA Juan Santana also at this meeting? Is this country facilitating fuel shipments to Venezuela?

Young read the messages but did not respond. He also declined calls to his mobile phone.

Guardian Media sent the same questions to Communication Minister Donna Cox and there was no response.

Guardian Media also sent these questions to Prime Minister Rowley:

1. Is this something that was arranged during the Delcy Rodrigues visit with you last month?

2. Was PDVSA president Juan Santana also at that meeting?

3. Is T&T facilitating shipments to Venezuela?

He also did not respond to those questions and calls to his mobile went unanswered.

Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) president general Ancel Roget read messages sent to him on the same issue but did not respond either.

In January 2019, United States Ambassador to T&T Joseph Modello said Rowley’s continued recognition of Maduro’s regime was “deeply concerning”. The US recognises opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Rowley responded to Modello then, saying that he took “umbrage” to Modello’s statements. He even criticised United National Congress (UNC) leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar for also publicly supporting Guaido over Maduro. He said then that if the Opposition believed it had to take instructions from the US Embassy, they should all leave the People’s National Movement out of that.

The Rowley administration has walked a fine line of neutrality since the massive socio-political collapse in Venezuela.

Who is Wilmer Ruperti?

2002

Wilmer Ruperti allegedly played a pivotal role in the Venezuelan energy industry breakdown in 2002/2003. According to reports at that time, he made oil tankers available to the Government. The provision made it possible for then-president Hugh Chavez to survive the then opposition’s attempt to cut off Chavez revenue source.

2016

The shipping tycoon confirmed that he paid the legal fees for two of Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro’s nephews, who were charged in a Manhattan court for conspiring to import 800 kgs of cocaine into the US.

2019

Ruperti in court over a sex-tape row after he sued a debt collector for allegedly swapping confidential documents for a sex tape related to another billionaire.

According to international reports, Ruperti’s company hired the debt collector and gave him access to internal documents. Ruperti then accused the debt collector of trading sensitive files.

2020

Ruperti’s company Maroil Trading billed PDVSA for the provision of 250,000 barrels of gasoline.