(Reuters) – Venezuela’s judiciary has moved to seize the assets of six private shipping agencies over debts to state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) [PDVSA.UL], according to a document seen by Reuters and two people with knowledge of the matter.
Port and shipping agencies, working on behalf of PDVSA’s customers or fuel suppliers, pay the state-run firm for the use of oil terminals that it owns. The agencies also pay fees to Venezuela’s INEA maritime authority for services like anchorage and tugboats.
According to an internal INEA document seen by Reuters dated Feb. 17, a Caracas criminal court decreed the seizure of assets belonging to the six agencies for alleged “misappropriation” of funds, harming PDVSA. The letter did not state how much money the agencies owed PDVSA.
It was not immediately clear who had requested the asset seizure.
The move marked another potential obstacle to Venezuela’s oil exports, which have been affected by U.S. sanctions on PDVSA as well as years of underinvestment and mismanagement at the cash-strapped company. OPEC-member Venezuela is undergoing a severe economic crisis, marked by persistent hyperinflation.
In the weeks since the letter was sent, intelligence police have conducted raids on several of the private shipping agencies, taking documents and computers with them, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Neither PDVSA, INEA, nor Venezuela’s oil ministry immediately responded to requests for comment.
Since the U.S. imposed sanctions on PDVSA last year in a bid to oust socialist President Nicolas Maduro, shipping agencies have been reluctant to carry out transfers to PDVSA’s bank accounts for fear of running afoul of restrictions on dealing with the entity, the people said.
Several attempted transfers have also been returned by banks, while some PDVSA customers are themselves wary of transferring money to the company’s accounts to pay for basic shipping services and fees.
That has been a major contributor to the growing pile of debt, the people said. In addition, PDVSA – whose PDV Marina unit has its own fleet of tankers which handle mostly domestic shipments – is itself behind on payments to the agencies for services for its ships.