CARACAS, Venezuela — The administration of President Nicolás Maduro called it a necessary move to ferret out “putrid” corruption and end impunity. Outside the government, however, many observers saw it as yet another strong-arm move by Mr. Maduro to consolidate power.
Whatever the motivation, the arrests this week of six senior executives at Citgo, the United States refining subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, have purged the American company’s leadership and stunned the energy sector.
The move, announced on Tuesday by Venezuela’s attorney general, was the latest in an inquiry that has led to the arrests in recent months of about 50 people associated with the vital national oil industry. The purge has come as the state-owned company, Petróleos de Venezuela, or Pdvsa, teeters on the brink of default on billions of dollars in bond debt amid the nation’s worsening economic crisis.
Attorney General Tarek William Saab said the six Citgo executives, including the acting president, faced charges of embezzlement and other crimes in connection with a refinancing deal worth as much as $4 billion that had not been authorized by the appropriate authorities in the Maduro administration. He said the officials had offered the subsidiary as a guarantee, putting it “at risk.”
The deal, he insisted, amounted to “corruption of the most putrid kind.”
Four of the men are United States citizens, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Corruption has been a chronic and well-known problem for years at Pdvsa and has helped to undercut its operations and profits.
But speculation abounded on Wednesday — among political analysts, oil industry executives and members of Venezuela’s political opposition — as to whether the latest round of arrests, along with the dozens of others in the past few months, were mostly a high-profile effort by Mr. Maduro to reinforce his power on the cusp of a presidential election year.
“My perception is that Maduro feels very strong,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political consultant in Caracas, listing a number of the president’s achievements this year, including his party’s domination of regional elections, which helped to neutralize the opposition. “It’s a moment to show to the public that he’s a good leader and can even go against the people in his own party.”
Mr. Pantoulas said the purge brought to mind recent events in Saudi Arabia, where the crown prince ordered the arrest of dozens of the kingdom’s elite in a move that opponents called a political shake-up in the guise…