Venezuelan farmers seek permission to import diesel amid shortages

CARACAS, March 18 (Reuters) - Venezuelan farmers said on Thursday that they had asked the government to allow them to import diesel themselves to alleviate shortages of the fuel that are hindering food production and distribution.

Diesel has become scarce in the crisis-stricken OPEC nation amid very low output at state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela’s 1.3 million barrel-per-day (bpd) refining network, and escalating U.S. sanctions barring foreign oil companies from swapping fuel for Venezuelan crude.

Venezuela’s hydrocarbons law reserves the right to international trade in crude and refined products to the state and state-owned companies. But groups representing ranchers and milk producers said they were seeking temporary authorization due to the current crisis.

“We want them to give producers the possibility at least temporarily, given the circumstances, in order to stay afloat,” Armando Chacin, president of the Fedenaga ranchers’ federation, told Reuters.

Neither PDVSA nor Venezuela’s oil or information ministries immediately responded to requests for comment.

The United States in October reversed an exemption to its sanctions on PDVSA - designed to oust President Nicolas Maduro, who it labels a dictator and accuses of rigging his 2018 re-election - that allowed companies to swap diesel for PDVSA’s crude.

Maduro, who has overseen an economic collapse since taking office in 2013, blames U.S. sanctions for Venezuela’s woes. But U.S. officials have noted that PDVSA continues to send diesel and gas oil to political ally Cuba.

Venezuela has not received diesel imports since November, internal PDVSA documents show.

Truckers say service stations are rationing fuel, while farmers warn that they cannot plant or harvest crops. Independent analysts estimate the nation still had over 2 million barrels in stocks earlier this month, enough for about two months of consumption.

Roger Figueroa, president of the Cavilac dairy producers’ group, told Reuters that producers had gone six weeks without receiving diesel shipments, and warned supermarket milk inventories could soon run low.

Sugar producers have requested permission to import diesel from neighboring Colombia but have not been approved, an industry source said. (Reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas Additional reporting by Mayela Armas in Caracas Writing by Luc Cohen Editing by Marguerita Choy)