May 20 (Reuters)
Iran's fuel shipment to gasoline-starved Venezuela ought to "alarm" Latin America, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Wednesday, as five Iranian fuel tankers head towards the South American country.
Both OPEC members are U.S. adversaries whose oil industries are under U.S. sanctions. Trump administration officials say Washington is considering a response to the shipment.
"We are very concerned for the safety of Venezuelans, and of Latin America as well, due to this attempted Iranian presence on Venezuelan soil," said Guaido, who leads the opposition-held National Assembly and is recognized as the rightful president by dozens of countries, including the United States.
The tankers - Fortune, Forest, Petunia, Faxon and Clavel - are carrying around 1.5 million barrels of fuel, and passed the Suez Canal in the first two weeks of May, Refinitiv Eikon data show. They are expected to arrive in Venezuela between late May and early June.
Guaido said the fact President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government is importing fuel shows its mismanagement of the country's oil industry. Venezuela's refining network has 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) of capacity, but has collapsed after years of underinvestment.
Maduro calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup, and blames U.S. sanctions for Venezuela's economic woes. Neither Venezuela's oil ministry nor its information ministry, which responds to media requests on the government's behalf, immediately responded to requests for comment.
Guaido said his team believed Venezuelan officials were paying Iran for the shipment with gold from informal mines in the country's southern jungles, which have been criticized by environmental activists and rights groups for contaminating watersheds and fueling massacres as gangs battle for territory.
"They're paying for that gasoline with blood gold," Guaido said in an online panel discussion hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.