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Cyprus emerges as sanctions workaround for Venezuela oil shipments

Until last year, Greek shipowners accounted for 80% of crude lifted from Venezuela, undeterred by US sanctions. Then, six vessel-owning companies connected with four prominent owners were briefly blacklisted for breaching US sanctions, forcing all Greek-owned vessels involved in these trades to rethink and recalibrate business plans

Owners have found corporate workarounds to keep crude flowing even as the Greek Union of Shipowners discourages its members from returning to the trade

THE Cyprus maritime and business sector is being used by shipowners in the European Union to register and flag tankers involved in Venezuelan oil trades with tacit acceptance from the republic’s shipping ministry, a Lloyd’s List investigation has found.

At least 11 elderly tankers involved in Venezuelan trades have moved to the Cyprus flag over the past 12 months and ownership shifted to a series of newly incorporated single-ship companies in Limassol, according to Companies House records.

It is the first time that an EU member country has been observed registering and flagging vessels shipping US-sanctioned crude from the South American country.

The influx of tanker tonnage to the Cyprus flag registry, the world’s 11th-largest, signals a strategic shift from owners and the Republic of Cyprus and tests the limits of US enforcement.

US sanctions, first imposed on Venezuela January 2019, have restricted or limited trade with its government or its state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA).

However, the legal position of non-US persons or companies without links to the US is opaque.

Although the EU has imposed sanctions on some Venezuelan citizens, unlike the US these do not directly cover Venezuela’s oil and shipping sector. 

There is, therefore, no suggestion that any of the Cyprus-flagged vessels tracked by Lloyd’s List have breached any sanctions.

The country’s deputy shipping ministry told Lloyd’s List the Republic of Cyprus was only committed to enforcing European Union and United Nations sanctions and not those imposed by the US.

Cyprus “has no competence or legal basis for enforcing sanctions that have not been imposed by either the UN or the EU,” the ministry said in an emailed response.

Still, trading cannot be done using US currency, which complicates any transactions and rules out those European shipowners exposed to the US financial system via their financial, banking, legal and insurance structures.

Of the 11 Cypriot-flagged tankers, 10 are linked via a complex ownership structure over the past 12 months to Greek shipowners, Greek-registered companies or were formally owned by Greek owners before their sale and reflagging.

There are seven suezmaxes, three very large crude carriers and one aframax tanker. Vessel tracking shows they are shipping crude from the South American country to destinations in Asia involving millions of barrels of crude.

They comprise 41% of tanker tonnage over 10,000 dwt now flying the Cyprus flag, data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence show.

Port call bans on Cyprus-registered ships imposed by Turkey 40 years ago often precludes tanker tonnage from the flag, given this prevents the option of loading or discharging at the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.

The suezmaxes include the Cape Bella V (IMO: 9232929), Zenith (IMO: 9236016), Cecilia A (IMO: 9228655), Amoroza (IMO: 9224439), Berlina (IMO: 9224453), Saint Marcella (IMO: 9248825) and Amethyst MTS (IMO: 9233777). All were purchased over the past 18 months and since deployed on Venezuelan trades.

The three VLCCs — Hari (IMO: 9197909), Mirage (IMO: 9216717) and Niki (IMO: 9174220) — were formerly owned by Greek owners before their sale and registration and reflagging to Cyprus.

Unknown owners bought the aframax tanker Reliable (IMO: 9187760) in January from Thai owners, registered and reflagged it to Cyprus, and then sailed the vessel to waters off Venezuela, where it now remains.

Mirage and Niki both formerly had the John Angelcoussis group as their beneficial owner before they were sold in December 2020. Their new beneficial owners are unknown, Lloyd’s List Intelligence data show.

Hari was commercially operated and beneficially owned by the Evalend Shipping Co until its sale and reflagging in December. Its new beneficial owner is also unknown.

In June 2020, the Union of Greek Shipowners publicly stated its commitment to implementing the US order to ban trade and economic transactions with Venezuela.

In a statement at the time, UGS president Theodore Veniamis “emphatically stated that the Union of Greek Shipowners remains committed to implementing US sanctions measures and would continue to urge its members to refrain from conducting any business with Venezuela until there is a change in regime”. 

Cyprus-based Andreas Kleanthous, from BIA Business Investment & Advisors, is listed as director of the registered company, Highmedsea Shipping Ltd, that owns the tankers Berlina and Reliable.

Intrainvestco Ltd — of which Mr Kleanthous is also the director and secretary — is also the secretary of Virosa Shipping Ltd, which is the technical and IMS manager of Berlina, Saint Marcella and Cecilia A.

Mr Kleanthous told Lloyd’s List that he was a professional corporate agent who abides by strict confidentiality rules and provided an office address, director and secretarial services.

“We are not involved nor have any knowledge of the specific business activities of each of the companies to which such services are provided,” he said in an emailed response, adding that he had not heard of these companies trading with Venezuela.

The Cyprus companies owning the 11 vessels (source Cyprus companies register) are:

Amethyst MTS — MTS Amethyst Shipping Ltd (director Vassilios Bacolitsas, secretary Lambros Kaikitis);
Cape Bella V — Highersea Shipping Ltd (director Vassilios Bacolitsas, secretary Lambros Kaikitis);
Zenith — Nerigia Shipping Ltd (director Vassilios Bacolitsas, secretary Lambros Kaikitis);
Cecilia A — Faithfull Shipping Ltd (director Jennifer May-Albert, secretary Ratio Holdings Ltd);
Amoroza — Precy Shipping Ltd (director and secretary Jennifer May-Albert);
Berlina — Highmedsea Shipping Ltd (drector Andreas Kleanthous, secretary Ratio Holdings Ltd);
Saint Marcella — Aserminia Shipping Ltd (director and secretary Angelos Mitropoulos);
Hari — Sali Shipping Ltd (director and secretary Ioannis Serentellos);
Niki — Pretty Nave Ltd (director and secretary Eleni Konstantelou);
Mirage — Targel Shipping Ltd (director and secretary Christos Georgantzoglou);
Reliable — Navman Shipping Ltd (directors Christos Georgantzoglou and Andreas Kleanthous), secretaries Ioannis Serentellos and Ratio Holdings Ltd).

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