HOUSTON — Citgo has long been a mainstay of the American oil industry, with three major refineries, 4,500 gasoline stations and an iconic sign looming over Fenway Park’s left field wall.
Now, the company could be splintered into pieces, a casualty of the turmoil in Venezuela.
As the American subsidiary of the Venezuelan national oil company, Citgo is the object of international political scheming, legal maneuvering and financial gamesmanship. Unless Venezuela’s national oil company makes a $913 million payment on its 2020 bonds that is due Oct. 28, creditors and other businesses that have claims against Venezuela’s socialist government could try to seize Citgo.
“Everyone wants the Citgo assets because it’s the only way to get paid,” said Francisco Monaldi, a fellow in Latin American energy policy at Rice University.
The situation has pitted various groups against one another and set off a flurry of negotiations. Bondholders want assurance that they will be repaid. Citgo and Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader whom the United States, the European Union and other governments consider Venezuela’s legitimate head of state, want to avert a breakup of the company, and they are urging the Trump administration to act on their behalf.
Several Republican lawmakers are pressing President Trump to prevent a splitting up of Citgo, which they argue could pose a security threat to the United States. The lawmakers assert that Rosneft, an oil giant controlled by the Russian government, could pick up some of the pieces because Citgo shares are collateral for a Russian loan to Venezuela — an outcome that experts say is unlikely.
Valued at around $10 billion, Citgo is by far Venezuela’s most valuable overseas asset. More than that, it has long been the gateway for the South American country’s heavy oil into the United States, its most important market by far. With an economy in tatters and an estimated $150 billion in debts, Venezuela desperately needs Citgo.
But for the moment Citgo is a pawn in a struggle between the Trump administration and the government of President Nicolás Maduro, and its principal allies, Cuba and Russia.
American sanctions against the Maduro government have blocked fuel shipments between Citgo and Venezuela since January. And the company is now controlled by a board appointed by Mr. Guaidó, the National Assembly leader, who declared himself interim president on the grounds that Mr. Maduro had won a 2018 presidential election through fraud.
Since the Guaidó-appointed board took control, Citgo has replaced its crude imports from Venezuela with oil from other Latin American countries and Africa.
Mr. Maduro has asserted that American sanctions are designed to steal Citgo from Venezuela and that Mr. Guaidó is a puppet of the Trump administration.
Struggling to pay for imported food and medicine, Mr. Maduro’s government has stopped making payments on most of its debts.
Trying to protect Citgo from dismemberment, the board appointed by Mr. Guaidó has already made one small payment on the debts of the national oil company, best known by its acronym, PDVSA.
“What Citgo is needed for is to support the recovery of Venezuela once PDVSA is under the full control of Guaidó,” said Lisa Viscidi, a specialist on Latin American energy issues at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington.
But Mr. Guaidó’s position has weakened in recent months after he made several unsuccessful attempts to push Mr. Maduro out of power with mass demonstrations and calls on the military to remove him.
Mr. Guaidó does not control the country’s cash flow from its oil sales and therefore does not have the money to make the Oct. 28 payment. He, Citgo executives and several prominent members of Congress have lobbied the Trump administration to prevent a breakup of the company, which would be another blow to Mr. Guaidó and his claim to be the lawful president of Venezuela.
President Trump could reverse a narrow sanctions exemption issued by the Treasury Department that gave investors who own PDVSA’s 2020 bonds an exception from rules that prohibit United States businesses from conducting financial transactions involving Venezuelan assets. The exemption was put in place last year to prevent Mr. Maduro from citing American sanctions as a reason not to pay bondholders.
But now the exemption, which gives bondholders the right to acquire Citgo shares as payment, would end up hurting Mr. Guaidó, not Mr. Maduro. Citgo is a profitable company and can pay the interest due on its own debt, but it would struggle to shoulder PDVSA’s debt.
Members of a committee of Venezuela bondholders, led by Greylock Capital Management and T. Rowe Price, have proposed to the administration and Mr. Guaidó that they allow the creditors to lend more money to forestall a default. The investors have not defined the form of that loan, but it presumably would add to PDVSA’s debts.
“No one wants to see them unnecessarily default,” said Ajata Mediratta, Greylock’s managing partner, president and portfolio manager. “A number of creditors have explicitly offered to assist the Guaidó administration in making this payment. But the quid pro quo is that creditors would like the Guaidó administration to work with creditors to nudge the U.S. Treasury to amend the trading sanctions.”
A Treasury Department spokesman declined to comment on Thursday.
The opposition-controlled National Assembly declared this week that the 2020 bonds were not valid because the assembly had not approved them. Bondholders say that argument might not hold up in an American court.
Exacerbating Citgo’s jeopardy, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia ruled last month that Crystallex International, a Canadian gold-mining company, could lay claim to shares of Citgo. In 2011, the Venezuelan government, then led by Hugo Chávez, nationalized Crystallex’s share of a mining project. Mr. Maduro’s government paid the company $500 million toward a $1.4 billion debt last year, but neglected to pay other installments agreed upon in arbitration.
Other potential claimants include ConocoPhillips, which has been awarded over $10 billion by international tribunals for its Venezuelan projects expropriated by Mr. Chávez, who died in 2013. That Houston-based oil company has so far not sought to acquire Citgo, attempting to be paid directly through an arbitration with PDVSA and the Venezuelan government.
Financial analysts expect that holders of the PDVSA bonds would be first in line to receive shares in Citgo, since the $3.4 billion in 2020 bonds are secured by 50.1 percent of Citgo shares. Ashmore Group, a London investment firm, has the largest bond holding, and other creditors could initiate legal proceedings to auction off Citgo to the highest bidder to recoup the money they are owed.
The remaining 49.9 percent has been used to secure loans to PDVSA by Rosneft, the Russian oil company, which is active in Venezuelan oil fields.
Several American lawmakers, including Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, have called on the administration to protect Citgo’s 5,300 employees and keep the company from falling under Russian control.
”The potential for Rosneft to have any control of a U.S. company poses a major threat and exposes critical infrastructure to national security threats,” the two Republican senators, who have allied themselves with Mr. Trump on numerous issues, and five other lawmakers wrote to the president this month.
But experts say a takeover by Rosneft is highly unlikely.
In recent months, a Panamanian affiliate of Rosneft has taken control of marketing Venezuelan oil internationally. Rosneft has received accelerated payments on its loans, and Venezuela’s debts to Rosneft may be completely paid off by the end of the year.