The captain of the Manuela Saenz, a Venezuelan oil tanker, fought back against orders to send a shipment of unleaded and diesel gasoline to Cuba last week, prompting dictator Nicolás Maduro’s political police forces to stop the ship and replace him, according to a report in Argentine news outlet Infobae on Tuesday.
The anecdote, allegedly relayed to Infobae by unspecified sources, suggests that Maduro may be losing control of the workers that run Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-run oil company and one of Maduro’s last remaining lifelines. It also highlights the deep ties between Maduro’s regime and the Communist Party running Cuba, which has reportedly installed as many as 100,000 agents in Venezuela to ensure Maduro follows orders from the Castro regime. Reports throughout independent Venezuelan media claim that Maduro has become so concerned that those around him will betray him that he no longer keeps Venezuelan soldiers near him and “only trusts the Cubans.”
Infobae reports that the Manuela Saenz left Venezuela with its gasoline shipment on May 1 without incident, “but during the voyage, it disconnected its satellite systems to avoid being detected.” To get to Cuba, the ship would have to pass through the waters of Caribbean nations that abide by U.S. sanctions against the Maduro regime and thus risk being seized.
While the ship was off the grid, Infobae claims, its captain – who remains unnamed in the article – and some of the crew refused to travel to Cuba. Members of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin), the political police Maduro deploys to imprison, torture, and kill dissidents, then stepped in to “intimidate and pressure the crew” into completing the trip. The agents reportedly removed the captain and replaced him with a compliant navigator, who then completed the trip to Havana.
“From then on, no one else gave any opinions or said anything on the matter, including the new captain,” Infobae concludes.
The whereabouts of the captain who defied Maduro remain unknown. Satellite images place the Manuela Saenz in Havana, Cuba. Infobae claims that the tanker went off the grid during much of the trip or appeared in international waters between Haiti and Jamaica, but never in national waters that it necessarily must have traveled through to get to Cuba. Navigating those waters could have triggered U.S. sanctions specifically targeting shipments of Venezuelan oil to Cuba, which some in the U.S. have suggested are not strong enough to stop the trade between the two nations. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) suggested last week the U.S. should consider using the Navy to block ships like the Manuela Saenz from making its rounds to enrich the Castro regime.
Diario de Cuba, a Spain-based publication, revealed evidence last week that Venezuela sent two other ships to Cuba to send oil despite the sanctions, identifying them as the E Pioneer and the Marigola. The Infobae report suggests that these ships are key to PDVSA’s functions as Maduro has lost control of several others due to the collapsing state of the Venezuelan economy. In February, Reuters reported that Maduro was on the brink of losing the Río Arauca and the Parnaso, stationed in Lisbon, for failing to pay Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), the management company. As of February, Reuters reported the debt to BSM to be at least $15 million. Infobae reported that authorities seized the Río Arauca immediately upon landing in Portugal in 2017 due to debts to international creditors and it has failed to generate any profit since.
A third ship, the Negra Matea, has been stuck in Portugal for over a year due to an inability to hire enough crew after 17 crew members were moved to the Parnaso. All three of these ships could be generating money for Venezuela but have become idle, making it more difficult for Venezuela to ship its crude to prospective buyers.
“The disinterest of the Venezuelan state is total,” an unnamed source told Infobae of the ships. “They don’t care that profits were lost.”
PDVSA – still in Maduro’s control despite President Juan Guaidó becoming the legal head of state in January – has been threatening a complete collapse for months. The country’s oil production and profits have plummeted as Maduro replaced the corporation’s experienced executives with socialists loyal to him and implemented a policy of shipping Cuba free oil in exchange for expertise in how to repress dissidents and stay in power. While Maduro still prioritizes shipping Venezuelan oil to Cuba – even over providing Venezuelans with fuel – the parasitic Cuban economy has recessed in the face of Maduro’s inability to sustain the economy. Maduro has attempted to blame the U.S. sanctions for his economy’s decline, alleging that the goal of the sanctions is to for the U.S. to seize Citgo, the U.S. arm of PDVSA, an accusation that does not account for why Maduro’s hand-picked oil executives have failed to keep production at a stable rate at home.