Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro announced military exercises had taken place on Thursday in anticipation of potential American military activity to prevent a group of Iranian oil tankers from arriving in the South American country.
Maduro, despite being in charge of the nation with the world’s second-largest known oil reserves, has accepted a shipment of five Iranian tankers carrying an estimated 1.5 million barrels of gasoline, due to arrive in Venezuela this weekend. After two decades of socialist mismanagement, Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), reached lows in oil production not seen since 1945 this year, a product of being run by political cronies with no expertise in the industry.
Maduro’s failures have resulted in severe fuel shortages in a nation used to an abundance of gasoline so pervasive that fuel is basically free. Amid a nationwide attempt at quarantine to prevent the spread of the Chinese coronavirus, gas stations throughout the country have seen large crowds form outside demanding fuel, often left empty-handed as the stations run out.
While Venezuela has faced gasoline shortages for years, the current state of affairs in which Venezuelans have nearly no access to fuel has been in place for over nine weeks. According to the Argentine outlet Infobae, Venezuelans are currently paying as much as $15.20 a gallon for gasoline on the black market as of this week.
The Iranian oil shipments are the first major move made on the fuel front by the Maduro regime since the socialist dictator appointed Tareck El Aissami the nation’s oil minister. El Aissami – one of Maduro’s top henchman who has previously served as vice president and head of all natural resources – is considered a close ally of the Shiite jihadist group Hezbollah. The U.S. government has sanctioned El Aissami and issued wanted notices for him both for his alleged ties to terrorism and evidence that he “facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that left from a Venezuelan air base and drug routes through the ports in Venezuela,” according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said on Wednesday that the Venezuelan Armed Forces – for years considered a hotbed of drug trafficking activity – would help escort the Iranian tankers into Venezuelan waters, claiming the move necessary because of the presence of American military vessels in the Atlantic. Padrino also promised a warm welcome from the Bolivarian Armed Forces once the tankers get to a Venezuelan port.
On Thursday, Maduro announced that military exercises dubbed “Bolivarian Shield” had taken place in anticipation of expected American aggression.
“We were witnesses to military exercises … on the island of La Orchila, the testing of missile systems of maximum precision for the defense of the waters and the coasts,” Maduro announced on state television. “We were testing the Buk missile, absolute precision.”
Buk is a Russian missile system commonly sold to Moscow’s allies, many of them antagonistic to America. Experts believe a Buk missile was responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over the skies of eastern Ukraine in 2014, a crime believed to have been perpetrated by pro-Russian rebels.
Reports from Latin America indicate that the gasoline shipment is the start of a larger cooperative agreement between longtime allies Caracas and Tehran. The Argentine outlet Infobae reported on Thursday that Venezuela began welcoming experienced Iranian oil workers in April in “over a dozen flights from Tehran.” The first group of workers were reportedly assigned to the PDVSA complex in Paraguaná. Infobae added that two other facilities, refineries in Cardón and Amuay, have begun settling Iranian oil industry experts in to get them back to functional productivity levels.
Infobae claimed that Venezuela paid for these workers with nine tons of gold. Maduro has greatly expanded the illicit – and environmentally catastrophic – oil mining trade, allowing Marxist terrorist groups to colonize undeveloped areas, including those populated by indigenous groups.
Iranian state media reported Padrino’s announcement of escalating military activity in the waters off of Venezuela as necessary thanks to ‘the US’ provocative acts,” which Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reportedly called “a big threat to international peace and security.”
There is no evidence that the U.S. military is planning a violent interception of the vessels, though the shipment does violate American sanctions on Iran’s oil industry. A senior official in the administration of President Donald Trump said in a statement on Thursday that “the United States will not tolerate continued meddling by supporters of an illegitimate regime that oppresses its people, denies basic human rights, and engages in violence and repression,” but kept the statement general, not directed only at Iran.
“Iran, Cuba, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China are engaged in malign activities and meddling around the world,” the senior administration official said. “The United States denounces their actions everywhere but especially in the Western Hemisphere, and we will not abide by their support of the illegitimate and tyrannical regime of Nicolas Maduro.”
“The United States is committed to ensuring the unfettered flow of humanitarian aid to the people of Venezuela, fully utilizing humanitarian authorizations to ensure that food and supplies continue to flow to Venezuelans suffering from mismanagement and corruption under Maduro’s man-made economic crisis,” the official concluded.
The National Security Council (NSC), in another statement, called the Iranian shipment an “act of desperation.”