Chevron manager jailed in Venezuela amid crackdown on government critics

This undated 2024 photo courtesy of Alejandro Gonzalez's family shows him in Denver, Colorado. The former Venezuelan fighter jet pilot jailed in Venezuela in February 2024 in connection to a Venezuelan government investigation against a prominent human rights attorney is an employee of U.S. oil firm Chevron, the Associated Press has learned. (Family of Alejandro Gonzalez via AP)

This undated 2024 photo courtesy of Alejandro Gonzalez’s family shows him in Denver, Colorado. The former Venezuelan fighter jet pilot jailed in Venezuela in February 2024 in connection to a Venezuelan government investigation against a prominent human rights attorney is an employee of U.S. oil firm Chevron, the Associated Press has learned. (Family of Alejandro Gonzalez via AP)

MIAMI (AP) — A former fighter pilot jailed in Venezuela in February for his ties to a prominent human rights attorney is an employee of U.S. oil firm Chevron, The Associated Press has learned, an arrest that combined with other recent repressive acts by Nicolás Maduro’s government is straining efforts by the Biden administration to pave the way for free and fair elections in the South American country.

Alejandro González was taken into custody Feb. 9 when counterintelligence agents raided his home near the eastern oil center of Barcelona around 10 p.m. The only information his family has received came in a single statement by Maduro’s chief prosecutor accusing him of revealing national security secrets and obstruction of justice.

“I can’t stop thinking that this is all a nightmare and isn’t really happening,” Alexandra González, the oldest of González’s three daughters, said in an interview from her home in Spain. “We don’t know how our dad is doing. We haven’t spoken to him, nor has he had access to his chosen lawyers.”

González’s arrest came hours after his ex-wife, human rights attorney Rocío San Miguel, was herself picked up at an airport outside Caracas while heading on a short trip to Miami. Attorney General Tarek William Saab has accused her of working as a “spy” in one of multiple, U.S.-backed conspiracies that authorities claim to have foiled in recent months. Her daughter, two brothers, and another former husband, who also served in the air force, were also detained but later released in what U.N. officials have denounced as a growing trend of targeting friends and family members of government opponents.

Chevron, the only major U.S. oil company in Venezuela, said González’s arrest was not related to the company. In a statement, it said it would not comment on personnel matters.

González’s daughter scoffed at the idea that her father, who retired from Venezuela’s air force in 2011 with the rank of colonel, had any involvement in efforts to destabilize the government. González described her father as a “normal” hardworking professional who fulfilled his boyhood dream for flight in the cockpit of an F-16 and other aircraft he operated while serving in the air force.

Since retiring from the military, the 57-year-old worked for Chevron and now holds a managerial position coordinating flights for its employees to and from the five drilling projects the company operates in the OPEC nation in conjunction with state-owned oil company PDVSA. He’s now being held in a facility in the capital run by Venezuela’s military intelligence unit.

“How can someone who hasn’t been a military officer for 13 years hold any state secrets?” the younger González said. “It makes no sense.”

The arrests are part of what U.S. officials say is a larger crackdown on dissent that threatens to unravel a political accord negotiated last year between envoys of Maduro, the administration of President Joe Biden and a U.S.-backed opposition coalition to provide guarantees for presidential elections set to take place this year.

As part of that agreement, the U.S. started easing oil sanctions, allowing Chevron to conduct more fuel swaps with PDVSA to recover some of the unpaid loans it has made to the company as part of their joint ventures developing oil fields.

But hopes for a more level playing field appear to be fading fast.

In addition to San Miguel’s arrest, the country’s top court, stacked with Maduro loyalists, has blocked the president’s chief rival, María Corina Machado, from running for office. And just this week, Maduro’s government arrested or issued warrants for nine of Machado’s aides, including her campaign manager.

It also ordered the closure of a United Nations human rights office, giving its international staff 72 hours to leave the country, accusing the watchdog of assisting coup plotters when it called for San Miguel’s immediate release.

“Maduro will not comply with an agreement, or any agreement, that will lead to his involuntary departure from office,” William Brownfield, a former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, said at a recent event in Washington hosted by the Wilson Center. “He has calculated, correctly, that he would not win in a head-to-head confrontation with María Corina Machado.”

On Wednesday, an independent panel of experts told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that Maduro’s government has increased repression efforts against real or perceived opponents ahead of this year’s presidential election.

Marta Valiñas, head of the panel established by the council in 2019, told diplomats that the Venezuelan attorney and her associates were detained in violation of basic due process guarantees like appearing before a judge within 48 hours of their detention.

“This practice of intimidating with criminal actions family members and friends of people targeted by the authorities responds to a pattern already reported in previous mission reports,” Valiñas said.

Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves but years of mismanagement, and more recently U.S. sanctions, have destroyed production, which has gone from the 3.5 million barrels per day when Maduro’s mentor Hugo Chávez took power in 1999 to less than 820,000 barrels per day in February — near the lowest level in decades.

Chevron has been operating in Venezuela since the 1920s and stayed in the country even after a number of its competitors fled disputes and threats of seizure by Chávez.

San Miguel is an attorney who runs a small non-profit monitoring Venezuela’s security forces. Unlike many other government critics who’ve fled in recent years, she has stayed in the troubled country, focused less on pressuring the Maduro government than explaining the often unseen politicking inside the barracks.

Saab, during a nationally televised press conference, said authorities also had proof of “payments in dollars from a transnational oil corporation” to San Miguel for an “environmental analysis” on military issues. He did not show copies of the payments nor did he identify the company that allegedly paid San Miguel.

González said her father hasn’t spoken to San Miguel in almost a year, saying the couple’s marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce in 2023.

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Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.

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