Venezuela Arrests Two Chevron Employees Amid Oil Industry Purge
CARACAS/HOUSTON, April 17 (Reuters) - Chevron Corp said on Tuesday two of its executives were arrested in Venezuela, a rare move likely to spook foreign energy firms still operating in the OPEC nation stricken by hyperinflation, shortages and crime.
Venezuelan Sebin intelligence agents burst into the Petropiar joint venture's office in the coastal city of Puerto La Cruz on Monday and arrested the two Venezuelan employees for alleged wrongdoing, a half-dozen sources with knowledge of the detentions told Reuters.
Venezuela's Information Ministry and state oil company PDVSA did not respond to a request for information about the detentions, which come amid a crackdown on alleged graft in the oil sector.
One of the detainees, Carlos Algarra, is a Venezuelan chemical engineer and expert in oil upgrading whom Chevron had brought in from its Argentina operations. The other, Rene Vasquez, is a procurement adviser, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The U.S. major confirmed the arrests, which are believed to be the first to affect a foreign oil company's direct employees.
"Chevron Global Technology Services Company is aware that two of its Venezuelan-based employees have been arrested by local authorities," Chevron said in a statement.
"We have contacted the local authorities to understand the basis of the detention and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of these employees. Our legal team is evaluating the situation and working towards the timely release of these employees."
A Chevron spokeswoman declined to provide further details on the case or the status of its operations. The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The arrests highlight risks for foreign companies in Venezuela, home to the world's biggest crude reserves but heaving under a fifth straight year of recession. Some insiders say a fracturing ruling elite is using the purge to wage turf wars or settle scores.
"Our view has been that oil industry companies would do well to be cautious and stop assuming that good relations with PDVSA can last forever due to a common interest in pumping oil," said Raul Gallegos, associate director with the consultancy Control Risks.
"The level of corruption in PDVSA, especially under a military administration, can and will trump production logic."
President Nicolas Maduro since last year has overseen the arrest of dozens of oil executives, including the former energy minister and PDVSA president.
The purge comes years after industry analysts began criticizing PDVSA for widespread graft. The government long decried such accusations as "smear campaigns." But last year, Maduro changed his tone and started blaming "thieves" for rampant graft in the oil sector and an economic crisis that has spawned malnutrition, disease and emigration.
Vowing a cleanup, Maduro replaced many jailed executives with soldiers, but the unpopular management has spurred a wave of resignations.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas and Marianna Parraga in Houston; Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder in Houston Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Matthew Lewis)
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