Fri | Jan 28, 2022

Shipping tycoon defiant about Venezuela gas delivery

Published:Friday | May 1, 2020 | 12:21 AM

People stand close to their vehicles as they wait in line to fill up their vehicles with gasolene in Caracas, Venezuela, on Saturday, April 11.
People stand close to their vehicles as they wait in line to fill up their vehicles with gasolene in Caracas, Venezuela, on Saturday, April 11.

A CONTROVERSIAL ­shipping magnate supplying gasolene to his native Venezuela said he will do whatever it takes to prevent worsening fuel shortages from igniting a social explosion that, he warns, could be worse than anything caused by the coronavirus pandemic in the South American country.

Wilmer Ruperti gave his first interview in years after The Associated Press reported earlier this month that his company, Maroil Trading Inc, was buying gasolene that most companies are refusing to sell to the bankrupt, heavily sanctioned socialist country. He said the first 300,000 barrels arrived last week and one million more are on the way.

He rejected criticism that he is throwing a lifeline to Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and said the Trump administration is aware of what he described as “humanitarian work”. He said his goal is to ease the suffering of regular Venezuelans caught in the middle of a 16-month stand-off between Maduro and the head of congress, Juan Guaidó, who is recognised by the United States and some 60 nations as interim president.

“This isn’t about my business,” Ruperti told AP at his modernist, hilltop mansion overlooking Caracas. “It’s about helping the Venezuelan people, who are ­suffering the consequences of a number of political actions.”

Ruperti’s gas shipments – barely enough to meet demand for a few days – won’t resolve Venezuela’s supply problems any time soon. The oil-dependent economy has been paralysed for weeks, with sporadic unrest and clashes with security forces charged with protecting gas stations from irate motorists forced to wait for hours to fill up.

But Ruperti says he was undeterred and would bring far larger quantities, if allowed. A former oil tanker captain, he has come to the rescue of Venezuela’s socialist government before. In 2002, he chartered a fleet of Russian tankers to import gasolene amid a months-long strike at state-run oil giant PDVSA, a move that ­endeared him to the late President Hugo Chávez.

“Maduro is Venezuela’s president, there can be no doubt about that,” he said, when asked about whether Maduro would benefit from his actions. “But this goes beyond the president. At the end of the day, you’re helping the Venezuelan people, common folk who go to work every day and rely on transport to get to their jobs, a doctor, or for the ­distribution of food.”

Ruperti, 60, declined to disclose from where he was purchasing the oil. But he said funds had partly come from PDVSA; and that to avoid US sanctions, Maroil, which is registered in Panama, with an affiliate in Europe, opened a bank account in Russia. The accounts are in Moscow-based Derzhava Bank, the AP previously reported.

“I would prefer to have my accounts in Citibank or Bank of America, but now that’s not happening,” he said from what he called his “situation room” dotted with large monitors displaying news, market figures and shipping traffic around the globe. A giant portrait of 19th-century ­independence hero Simón Bolívar hung behind a large desk in an adjacent office.

He said his lawyers notified the US Treasury Department last month about his plans and received no objections.

A Treasury statement said it ­receives many inquiries and disclosures each week on its compliance hotline and through its licensing portal, among other channels. But those submitting such requests should not conclude their activity is permissible or otherwise not sanctionable without receiving formal ­confirmation, it said.

“I am 100 per cent sure that I am doing this legally and that I am complying with the rules and obligations,” said Ruperti, who considers himself an admirer of the US and has family living there.

In Ruperti’s telling, he’s a by-product of what in a more prosperous era was the Venezuelan dream. The son of a cook who migrated to Venezuela from Italy in the 1950s, he was the recipient of government-provided scholarships to study abroad.

But unlike many wealthier Venezuelans, he stuck with Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution and saw his business as a prized PDVSA contractor boom.

Ruperti said he is heartened by Maduro’s recently announced shake-up of PDVSA, where production collapsed 65 per cent in the last 28 months of the previous management. He said the oil giant, which will be run by a cousin of Chávez, with support from an oil minister considered a US drug kingpin, should concentrate on its core business of producing, refining and distributing oil products – not pursuing political objectives.

“We have to get to work,” said Ruperti. “We have to try and marginalise the politicians and work every day, a minimum 12 hours, to sort out the situation.”