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By Brian Ellsworth and Marianna Parraga
ST. EUSTATIUS/HOUSTON, April 18 Venezuela's
state-run oil company, PDVSA, sent a tanker in October to the
Caribbean with the expectation that its cargo of crude would
fetch about $20 million - money the crisis-stricken nation
Instead, the owner of the tanker, the Russian state-owned
shipping conglomerate Sovcomflot, held the oil in hopes of
collecting partial payment on $30 million that it says PDVSA
owes for unpaid shipping fees.
Despite a longstanding alliance between Venezuela and
Russia, Sovcomflot sued PDVSA in St. Maarten, a Dutch island on
the northeast end of the Caribbean.
"The ship owners ... imposed garnishment on the
aforementioned oil cargo," reads a March decision by the St.
Five months after crossing the Caribbean, the NS Columbus
discharged its cargo of crude at a storage terminal on St.
Eustatius, an island just south of St. Maarten, under a
temporary decision by the court. Another tribunal in England
will decide if Sovcomflot will ultimately take the oil.
The dispute, which is being heard by the United Kingdom
Admiralty Court, highlights how shipping companies are becoming
increasingly aggressive in pursuing PDVSA's debts.
It also shows that political allies such as Russia are
losing patience with delinquent payments from Venezuela, whose
obsolete tankers are struggling to export oil and even to supply
fuel to the domestic market.
PDVSA also owes millions of dollars to Caribbean terminals -
including the one in Saint Eustatius, which is owned by U.S.
NuStar Energy, according to a PDVSA executive and an
employee at one of the facilities.
NuStar and a lawyer representing subsidiaries of Sovcomflot
declined to comment. The Russian conglomerate did not respond to
requests for comment.
PDVSA did not respond to written questions regarding its
tanker fleet or its debts to shipping companies.
PDVSA's tangled web of payment disputes now spans the globe,
from unpaid shipyards in Portugal and half-built tankers in Iran
and Brazil to the seized cargo in tiny St. Eustatius, whose
strategic location in the Caribbean made it an 18th century
colonial-era trading hub.
DEBTS TO RUSSIA
The oil price crash starting in 2014 hit Venezuela
particularly hard. Once a paradise of oil-fueled consumption,
the OPEC nation is now a Soviet-style economy of empty
supermarket shelves and snaking food queues.
Russia has consistently supported President Nicolas Maduro
with financing arrangements and oilfield investments. State-run
oil firm Rosneft has lent money to PDVSA since 2016
and last month was in talks to help PDVSA make a hefty bond
payment, according to Venezuelan government and banking
But problems had been brewing for months between Venezuela
and Sovcomflot, which provides about 15 percent of vessels that
PDVSA charters to ship crude to its clients amid a steady
deterioration of its own fleet, according to a captain and two
shipbrokers working with PDVSA.
Debts to Sovcomflot had by 2016 swelled enough that
company's top brass complained in person to PDVSA President
Eulogio Del Pino in the Russian city of Sochi, according to
source from PDVSA's trade department with knowledge of the
Del Pino agreed to a payment schedule proposed by his trade
and fleet executives and accepted by Sovcomflot, the source
said. But PDVSA - saddled with heavy bond payments and billions
of dollars in unpaid bills to oilfield services providers - was
unable to make sufficient payments to avoid Sovcomflot's
unusually public debt-collection gambit.
A PDVSA representative denied that Del Pino was confronted
by Sovcomflot in Sochi, saying the account was false, without
Detentions of oil cargoes have been unusual because
creditors rarely have sufficiently detailed information on
tanker movements to obtain timely court orders.
Venezuela also tends to ensure that any cargoes that leave
its ports legally belong to the clients rather than to PDVSA,
meaning they are rarely in a position to be seized.
The Sovcomflot dispute was different in that the creditors
are the tanker owners. Although the crude onboard the NS
Columbus had already been sold to Norway's Statoil, the
cargo was being carried in a tanker navigating with a bill of
lading under PDVSA's name, according to two inspectors and a
representative of one of the companies involved.
Statoil declined to comment.
(Additional reporting by Walter Hellebrand in St. Eustatius,
Jonathan Saul in London, Juliana Castilla in Buenos Aires and
Marta Nogueira in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Brian Thevenot)