Venezuela president plays to factions with shakeup

Associated Press
FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2013, file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, left, speaks with his Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez before the start of a press conference at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela. President Maduro has replaced on Tuesday Sept. 2, 2014, Venezuela's longtime oil minister and economic czar as part of a cabinet shakeup sidelining the most-prominent voice within his administration for much-needed reforms to address the country's economic crisis. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)
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FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2013, file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, left, speaks with his Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez before the start of a press conference at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela. President Maduro has replaced on Tuesday Sept. 2, 2014, Venezuela's longtime oil minister and economic czar as part of a cabinet shakeup sidelining the most-prominent voice within his administration for much-needed reforms to address the country's economic crisis. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The political factions holding up President Nicolas Maduro appear to each have won a slice of power with a Cabinet shuffle that breaks up the control one man held over Venezuela's oil and economy.

After months of foreshadowing a big shake-up, Maduro announced late Tuesday that he was sidelining his most powerful minister, Rafael Ramirez, dividing his authority among appointees favored by the different groups that jockey for power within his administration.

Ramirez, a fixture of the socialist South American country's 15-year socialist revolution, leaves his multiple roles of top economic adviser, oil minister, and president of the state-run oil giant PDVSA.

The reshuffling solidified the power of the family of Maduro's mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez. Asdrubal Chavez, an engineer and cousin of the late president, will step in as oil minister. The populist leader's son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, keeps his appointed role as vice president.

The military, a historical arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, also scored a victory. Low-profile army general and current Finance Minister Rodolfo Marco Torres will take over Ramirez's job as top economic policymaker.

Even the technocrats, whom international investors are counting on to pursue more pro-business polices, came out ahead. Stanford-educated engineer Eulogio Del Pino was named head of PDVSA. Del Pino has sat on the PDVSA executive board for more than a decade, and most recently served as vice president of exploration and production. On Wednesday, analysts hailed him as a highly competent oilman.

Ramirez, who had led PDVSA for 10 years, was designated foreign minister and given a newly created position of vice president for political sovereignty.

Few Venezuelans expected such a dramatic demotion for Ramirez, who looked stricken as the president thanked him for his past service in front of an audience of top military and civilian officials at the presidential palace.

The past months have seen an increasingly public power struggle between hardcore leftists in the Chavista movement and more pragmatic leaders like Ramirez, who backed an unpopular plan to raise gas prices — currently the world's cheapest — and unify three official exchange rates that have been fueling the bolivar's freefall in the black market.

With his responsibility for the world's largest oil reserves and 95 percent of Venezuela's export earnings, Ramirez had been seen as a potential ally for investors hoping that the economic convulsions wracking Venezuela will spur a more business-friendly approach.

Managing his own party has been a central task for Maduro. While Chavez held together a wide-ranging coalition by force of character and charisma, his less popular successor has struggled to project the same kind of leadership.

With the Cabinet changes, Maduro sought to demonstrate control while also accommodating the competing actors that make up his administration, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political and business consultant based in Caracas.

"Maduro's government is a collective one, with important political actors and groups inside it," he said.

Many observers were surprised the president didn't roll out economic reforms or indicate how he planned to stop the country's economic freefall. Jorge Roig, who heads the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, applauded the new energy and oil company appointments, but said the announcement was difficult to read.

"What we still don't know is if there will be a new game plan; that's what Venezuelans are waiting for," he said.

In the end, Maduro may have calculated dramatic economic moves were too costly politically — at least for now. Recent polls show that his support has slipped below 40 percent.

On the streets of downtown Caracas Wednesday, commuters were unimpressed with the shake-up.

"For me, the changes were no changes at all; it was just take something from here to put it over there," said school teacher Moises Ferrer.

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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.

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