Chavez backs oil minister after refinery blast

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez defended his oil minister Wednesday, saying he has a solid record leading the industry for a decade despite a recent refinery explosion that killed at least 42 people.

Expressing full support for Rafael Ramirez, Chavez said that if he wins re-election in October he will pick him again to head the Oil and Mining Ministry and the state-run company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, known as PDVSA.

Chavez backed Ramirez when asked by a reporter if he would consider dismissing his oil minister over the matter.

"How can someone suggest, if they still haven't completed the investigations, that I dismiss someone like Minister Rafael Ramirez," Chavez said at a news conference in a Caracas park.

"I'm forced to go out in his defense because he's a great Venezuelan, an honest man, a tireless worker who has held the post at the ministry for 10 years," Chavez said.

The cause of the Aug. 25 blast, which also injured more than 150 people, is under investigation.

Some experts have said that insufficient maintenance by Venezuela's oil company has probably made such disasters likelier. They note that PDVSA's revenues are used to finance social programs started by Chavez's government.

The Amuay refinery is one of the largest in the world and is part of PDVSA's Paraguana Refining Center, which includes the adjacent Cardon refinery.

Chavez flew to the explosion site after the disaster and has pledged aid for families whose homes were destroyed.

Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who is challenging Chavez in the Oct. 7 vote, has demanded a thorough investigation.

"When an accident happens in an industry or a refinery ... the government always wants the problems to blow up lower down, over the innocent ones, and not assume its responsibility," Capriles said last week.

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Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao