Venezuela Orders Arrest of 11 Banesco Universal Executives

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela will intervene in the operations of the nation’s largest privately-held bank, Banesco Universal, for 90 days after the country’s chief prosecutor ordered the arrest of 11 high-ranking executives as the government struggles to bring hyperinflation under control.

Tareck William Saab accused Banesco board members, among them executive president Oscar Doval, of facilitating or hiding “attacks against the currency,” including speculating on the exchange rate and smuggling paper money out of the country.

Venezuela Orders Arrest of 11 Banesco Universal Executives

“This board of directors acted by omission or in complicity with operators that have done a serious damage to the national economy,” Saab said at a news conference broadcast on state television.

Saab has launched a sprawling probe into alleged speculators and currency hoarders as inflation accelerates and Venezuela endures its fourth consecutive year of recession. President Nicolas Maduro has long alleged that quadruple-digit inflation and rampant shortages of consumer basics are not the fault of bad policy, but rather an “economic war” led by his political foes to undermine his leftist administration.

The government said its intervention in the bank aims to “clean it” of financial crimes. Deputy Finance Minister Yomana Koteich will head the administrative board during the bank’s intervention.

“Our goal is to restore confidence to those who want to invest in the country,” Saab said. “No one, be it a banker or a tycoon, can act in such a way without justice being served.”

Cash Shortages

Banesco serves over 8 million clients across the country and controls about 24 percent of the market, according to bank President Juan Carlos Escotet. The largest private bank in Venezuela, Banesco has increasingly drawn the government’s ire as prices surge and cash becomes increasingly scarce.

Earlier this year, ruling socialist party No. 2, Diosdado Cabello, said the government was going to begin talks to purchase the bank, which Escotet later denied. In April, the Maduro administration said it had launched an "administrative investigation" into Banesco for allegedly facilitating unverified bank transfers amid the most recent clamp down on the widely used black market.

Banesco board members were detained by military police on Wednesday following a meeting with the Venezuelan bank superintendency to discuss suspicious accounts, Escotet said in a video posted on his Twitter account.

Escotet said Banesco had been cooperating with the government in the ongoing probe and that he believed authorities had acted “disproportionately” over the alleged offenses. Given the size of the financial institution “it’s normal that this type of incident happen,” Escotet said, adding he would soon return to Caracas from Portugal, where he was on a business trip, to personally attend to his colleagues’ case.

For more than a decade, Venezuela has maintained a complicated web of price and currency controls. Authorities periodically crack down on businesses and individuals alike, sending official price checkers into shopping malls and super markets.

Officially, greenbacks trade at 69,000 bolivars per dollar, but can fetch about 800,000 on the black market.

On Wednesday, Saab announced that 134 people had been detained and over 1,300 bank accounts had been blocked, the vast majority of them belonging to Banesco.

“We are dismantling a parallel financial system in Venezuela,” Saab said. “It’s illegal and has connections outside the country.”

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