Venezuela sacks UN ambassador amid growing purge

The former oil czar has claimed he was removed for expressing "opinions" critical of the Venezuelan president. Analysts have warned of a growing purge as Nicolas Maduro gears up for presidential elections in 2018.

Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela's ambassador to the UN, on Tuesday announced his resignation after being instructed to do so by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Ramirez, who served as oil minister and chief of state oil company PDVSA under Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez, said he expected such a request after writing opinion pieces critical of the president's handling of Venezuela's economy.

Read more: Could there be a Venezuelan refugee crisis?

"At the request of the president of the republic, I have resigned from my position as ambassador and permanent representative of Venezuela to the United Nations," Ramirez said. "I have been removed for my opinions. Whatever happens, I will remain loyal to Commander Chavez."

According to sources close to Ramirez, he left the US after resigning. Venezuela's president appointed former Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada, seen as a Maduro loyalist, to take on the UN ambassador role.

Ramirez's resignation comes days after Venezuelan military arrested two of the former ambassador's allies, Eulogio del Pino, who served as oil minister, and Nelson Martinez, who headed the state oil company.

Venezuela Hugo Chavezund mit Rafael Ramirez auf der Einweihung eines thermischen Kraftwerks

Seen here with the late Hugo Chavez, Rafael Ramirez was instrumental in centralizing Venezuela's oil company

Growing purge

Venezuela's chief prosecutor said the arrests were part of an operation targeting 16 people aimed at dismantling "a cartel of organized crime that had taken over PDVSA."

Del Pino and Martinez are the highest-ranking officials to be swept up in an anti-corruption purge at the state oil giant. Both men were accused of graft and attempting to sabotage the country's energy industry.

Read more: Venezuela's rivals restart talks to resolve political crisis

However, analysts and opposition lawmakers believe Maduro is attempting to consolidate power across key institutions. Maduro has witnessed support for his presidency plummet after his government failed to redress an ever-growing economic crisis despite hosting the largest oil reserves in the world.

Related Subjects

The Venezuelan president appointed Manuel Quevedo, a former general, to replace del Pino and Martinez. The military has been instrumental in preserving Maduro's government, with at least one-third of the cabinet filled with current or former military officers.


The last straw

Violent protests erupted across the country following a Supreme Court decision in late March 2017 to strip the legislative branch of its powers. Amid an international outcry, President Nicolas Maduro reversed the decision, but it was too late. Thousands took to the streets to call for new elections and dozens died in clashes with security forces.


Starvation a growing problem

Venezuelans spend more than 30 hours a week waiting in lines to shop, and are often confronted with empty shelves when they finally enter a store. President Maduro blames the crisis on US price speculation. The opposition, however, accuses the Socialist government of economic mismanagement.


Health care crisis 'reminiscent of war zones'

In Colombia, Venezuelans are collecting medical supplies to send home, as seen in this picture. Hospitals around the country have compared conditions to those seen only in war zones. As patient deaths rise, health officials have sounded the alarm on the rise of malaria and dengue fever.


Venezuela's National Assembly seizes power from opposition-led congress

Venezuela's pro-government constituent National Assembly was established in July of 2017. The new body adopted the authority to pass legislation on a range of issues, effectively taking away the powers of congress, which was under the opposition's control. The move drew wide international condemnation.


Western powers slap sanctions Venezuela's ruling officials

In response to the ongoing political crisis, the United States and European Union imposed a series of sanctions against ruling officials. The US has blacklisted members of the Constituent Assembly and frozen all of Maduro's assets that are subject to US jurisdiction. The EU, meanwhile, has banned arms sales to the country and is lining up to freeze assets and impose travel restrictions.


Government victorious in regional elections

In October 2017, Venezuela held two votes: regional elections and elections for governors, which were overdue since 2016. The opposition boycotted the vote, but then split, as some candidates and small parties chose to participate. This caused a deep rift within Maduro's opponents. The government went on to sweep the contest, which detractors say was unfair and heavily favored the regime.


Debt default looms

Last November the oil-rich, cash-poor nation faced its day of reckoning, as officials met with creditors to hammer out a deal to keep the country from defaulting on its debt — estimated to be up to $150 billion (€127 billion). US and EU sanctions, however, have limited the chance of an agreement. Creditors will almost certainly go after the country's oil reserves.


The 'massacre of El Junquito'

In January, Oscar Perez, Maduro's enemy number one, was found by police in the Caracas neighborhood of El Junquito. The ex-cop had been on the run since he launched grenades at government buildings in the wake of the 2017 protests. The government labeled him a "terrorist." Perez and six other rebels were killed in the ambush, which the opposition denounced as an "extrajudicial killing."


Presidential elections scheduled

The new National Assembly announced in January that it would grant Maduro's call for snap presidential elections on April 22. The electoral authority, CNE, later moved the date to May 20. The EU, the US and 14 Latin American nations warned that they would not recognize the results. The mainstream MUD opposition alliance boycotted the vote.


Maduro wins

Maduro was re-elected to a second six-year term on May 20 with about 68 percent of the vote. Turnout was only 46 percent, according to the election body. However, the MUD opposition alliance, which boycotted the vote, put turn out at less than 30 percent. The Organization of American States called the elections neither free nor fair.

Gearing up for presidential run

Last week, Maduro announced he would seek a second term in elections slated for 2018. "We will have – God willing, people willing – the re-election of our brother Nicolas Maduro as president of the republic," said Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami.

Maduro's government has struggled to pull the country out of economic downturn following the collapse of oil prices, while US sanctions have made it harder for the country to operate in international credit markets.

Read more: Venezuela introduces 100,000 Bolivar bill worth $2

Earlier this month, Caracas stopped short of defaulting on its international loans after Russia agreed to restructure $3.15 billion (€2.67 billion) of debt the country took out in 2011 to purchase Russian weapons.

Venezuela Nicolas Maduro

Analysts view the Venezuelan government's latest arrests as a pre-election purge aimed at shoring up support for President Nicolas Maduro

ls/jm (Reuters, AFP, EFE)