The Purge of March 2023

Tareck El Aissaimi, one of the historic figures of ruling chavismo, seems to fall from grace, as a bunch of people—including a mayor, a construction magnate and several high ranking officials—have been arrested on charges of massive corruption

Over the weekend, a slew of arrests was very publicly executed by the National Anticorruption Police (yep, most Venezuelans found out yesterday that such a thing exists). There were a few high-profile arrests but one stood out: that of Joselit Ramírez, the very recently former President of the National Cryptoassets Superintendence and right hand man to oil minister Tareck El Aissami. 

Then, on Monday, National Comptroller Elvis Amoroso announced a public address about “matters of national interest,” and Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of ruling party PSUV, began a broadcast about Nicolás Maduro’s anti corruption efforts, only to be one-upped by Tareck El Aissami’s announcement that he was stepping down from his role as oil minister. 

All of this seems to be (publicly) focused on an internal scandal involving the national oil company, PDVSA, and some $3 billion dollars which seem to have been misplaced.

This isn’t the first time the government decides to purge itself of “undesirables,” but this is one massive occurrence given that it involves PDVSA and Tareck El Aissami, a huge figure within chavismo and someone who, up until recently, seemed to enjoy Maduro’s confidence. 

So, what happened, and what can we expect?

Trusted Hands?

Institutional sanctions levied against PDVSA by the United States’ Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) meant that the state-owned oil company and legendary cash-cow for the government had to find more creative ways of doing business. Under the “stewardship” of El Aissami, and thanks to business-savvy-Joselit Ramírez, the company found ways of skirting sanctions and finding some much-needed income, after heavy price discounts to account for the risk, of course. 

To be in charge of the oil industry means you must be in Maduro’s close circle or at least that you have enough leverage to take the role and keep it. However, something has very clearly changed. 

Photographic evidence of the existence of a “National Anticorruption Police”

Factional Warfare and Pacification

The PSUV has fractures among its different power tribes: the ruling ring around Maduro and Cilia Flores; that of the ambitious and internationally active Rodriguez siblings; the group led by Diosdado Cabello, influential among the security forces and the repression apparatus, currently threatened by the ascension of the others; and the one led by Tareck El Aissami, with many business people associated and a strong presence in Guayana state companies and PDVSA… until now. 

El Aissami’s exit from the oil ministry presents the opportunity of a power grab for the Rodríguez siblings, who have been eyeing his position in the oil industry for a while. As is customary in autocratic regimes, all government party figure heads rushed to voice support for Maduro’s efforts. Most notably, Diosdado Cabello, who usually lines up very quickly with Maduro for communication purposes (they are very effective at showing unity), even when they have a wildly adversarial relationship. He sat at Maduro’s side when he publicly accepted El Aissami’s resignation. 

It’s hard not to read the situation as a purge of potential political rivals or at least a cleaning up of people who got in the way too much.

But, if that’s the case, why was El Aissami not arrested alongside Ramírez?

The government’s treatment of El Aissami has been rather courteous. He was not arrested, he was also not removed from his post, he was even allowed to resign before anyone mentioned him. He has been granted special treatment because he’s an influential man with strong backers. At least for the moment.

Maduro was incredibly lenient and diplomatic when he accepted El Aissami’s resignation on Monday night, even calling him a “true revolutionary.” This is an attempt to hide the factional divide, a chance for El Aissami to be purged cleanly without completely enraging all his backers but still reminding them that their careers can all come to a sudden end whenever Maduro wants. Also, let’s remember how close (and useful) El Aissami has been to Maduro.

What happens now to El Aissami and why is this so public?

Given Maduro’s soft language and the preferable treatment El Aissami has enjoyed I suspect we’ll see him “collaborating” with the regime in order to bring the “guilty parties” to “justice.” He may yet be punished but I wouldn’t be surprised if that punishment’s mostly symbolic. 

The conspiracy theory think tanks have wondered if El Aissami may be traded to the United States in exchange for Alex Saab. While this may seem like a good deal on paper—exchanging a wanted corrupt official for a “diplomat”—, I don’t think it falls in line with everything we know about chavismo (plus it would be a display of weakness before imperialism). The calming language Maduro has used and the extreme courtesy that has been extended to El Aissami, similar to moments when other chavista top dogs have fallen from grace, is intended to quell any further internal warfare. Let’s remember that Rafael Ramírez was appointed ambassador before the UN when he was removed from PDVSA, and years passed before he fell into the traitor category.

With respect to the show, public purges force people to close ranks with whomever comes out on top, consolidating their power, those who hesitate or resist become the next target. It also works to keep up appearances with voters and sends a signal to the United States that you’re doing your part to clean up the oil business. There are many upsides, and it seems to be progressing well for Maduro.

Of course, there’s still one gigantic question left to answer: why now?

Talks with the United States have not restarted officially, and the elections are over a year away, what’s going on with this sudden anti corruption campaign? We can’t know for sure right now but it wouldn’t be that surprising if this is all an elaborate setup for something bigger, maybe a cover story for an even greater “disappearance” of funds that can now be pinned on those who have been singled out this weekend. Either way, chavismo will benefit from their “cleanup” and will no doubt brag about their efforts to all their international partners (and enemies). 

Judging by how fast everything is moving, it may not be too long until we find out where all this is going.