New Venezuela oil chief vows anti-corruption crusade

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s new oil czar vowed on Tuesday to root out corruption in state oil company PDVSA in a combative two-minute speech during his inauguration, without offering clues as to how he plans to handle the company’s crippling debt burden.

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President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday tapped Major General Manuel Quevedo to lead both PDVSA [PDVSA.UL] and the Oil Ministry, giving the already powerful military control of the OPEC nation’s dominant industry.

In comments during a two-hour broadcast by Maduro, Quevedo said he would go after “saboteurs” and defeat a “corrupt bureaucracy,” while offering only a brief nod to boosting oil production and improving refinery operations.

“We’re going to clean up public finances so that those thieves in PDVSA will finally leave,” said Quevedo. “The government’s actions have captured many people who had infiltrated the industry. Those who are left should be worried.”

Investors are closely watching Quevedo for clues as to whether he will seek to halt payment on PDVSA’s bonds, or maintain Maduro’s strategy of continuing to service debt despite the country’s crippling economic crisis.

Quevedo made no mention of foreign debt on Tuesday. Maduro said this month he would restructure and refinance all future debt payments and that the country would never default on its debt.

Quevedo’s predecessors, Oil Minister Eulogio del Pino and PDVSA President Nelson Martinez, were both seen as a industry veterans with significant technical expertise who favored continuing to make debt payments.

Sources in the sector said Quevedo’s appointment could quicken a white-collar exodus from PDVSA and worsen operational problems at a time when production has already tumbled to near 30-year lows of under 2 million barrels a day.

Maduro said on Tuesday he was naming Ysmel Serrano, the head of the trade and supply division, as vice president of PDVSA, which oversees the world’s largest crude reserves. He said he would seek to name the country’s former energy minister, Ali Rodriguez, as “honorary president” of PDVSA.

More military officers are set to be named to senior management posts as part of a shake-up the government says is aimed at fighting corruption, two company sources told Reuters on Monday.

Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney