Historically, we Americans – regardless of sex or region or ideological orientation or economic status or educational background – have tended to be suspicious of politicians. We’re not in a hurry to trust them. We see them as a necessary evil. Many of us assume they’re corrupt.
And indeed many of them are.
But when it comes to corruption, the great majority of U.S. politicians look like total amateurs compared to pretty much everybody in the government of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, heir to Hugo Chávez. These guys often seem like competitors in some perverse, hyped-up version of that old game show Supermarket Sweep, on which contestants raced up and down the grocery aisles at top speed, dumping as much merchandise as they could into their shopping carts before the buzzer went off.
(This comparison is perhaps especially apt given the way in which chavismo corruption has emptied Venezuelan supermarket shelves.)
In short, chavista politics is a grotesque grabfest – a hustle wrapped in a dodge wrapped in a racket. The shame factor is at zero. One after another chavista politician has been all but penniless when he took his first oath of office – and next thing you knew, the dude had a parking lot full of cars, a fleet of planes, and a half dozen mansions in as many countries. Rarely, moreover, does anybody raise an eyebrow about any of this obvious criminality, let alone look into the source of the lucky guy’s newfound lucre.
In chavista culture, grotesque corruption is taken for granted.
When Hugo Chávez became President in 1999, he rechristened the country as the “Bolivian Republic of Venezuela,” in honor of the noble nineteenth-century revolutionary Simón Bolívar, who is universally known as the “George Washington of South America.” Chávez claimed Bolívar as a hero, but Bolívar himself would doubtless have been appalled by pretty much everything about Chávez.
In any event, the nation’s newly minted name spawned a number of corollary monickers: bolichicos, a label for young Chávez-connected businessmen in a hurry; boliburgueses (i.e., boli-bourgeoisie), a term for supposedly socialist Chávez loyalists who are also suspiciously successful big-time capitalists; and bolifuncionarios, that is, pals of Hugo who were handed top jobs for which they had absolutely no visible qualifications and who proceeded to steal pretty much everything that wasn’t nailed down.
No, let’s not put it quite that way. Describing these crooks as mere sticky-fingered second-story men isn’t giving them enough credit. After all, they don’t just back up the truck and start loading it; they work hard at their thievery. Indeed, some of them have come up with such ingenious money-stealing stratagems that you can’t help thinking that if they’d devoted a fraction as much intelligence and energy to something that would benefit (rather than rip off) the Venezuelan people, the country’s economy would be thriving, rather than in the toilet.
Most of these creeps’ careers have followed essentially the same basic pattern. They started by being lucky enough to run across Chávez (or some Chávez intimate) in their youth. In addition to knowing Chávez, many of them have (to put it mildly) shady pasts: at college, Tarek El Aissami, current head of the ruling PSUV party, ran the dorms like a prison warden, using them to hide stolen cars, carry out drug sales, and house guerrillas. But such dicey résumé items are never held against these scoundrels.
Routinely, these chavistas started out in government at the very top – going straight from a job as (say) an ordinary accountant or farm worker to becoming the #1 guy at the state oil or transport or telecom firm, or serving as Minister of this or that. Also routinely, they jump from one of these top jobs to another – or even, in some cases (in defiance of both the Venezuelan Constitution and good administrative policy), hold more than one top job at the same time. For example, current Minister of Industries José David Cabello has previously served as head of the state tax agency (Seniat), as a board member of the state agency for international commerce (Cencoex), as head of the national airline (Conviasa), and as Minister of Infrastructure.
These top jobs all have two things in common: first, they require skills, education, and/or experience that none of these well-connected appointees has ever had; second, they give these guys access to piles and piles of dough. This combination of stellar incompetence and magnificent opportunities for corruption is exactly why the country is now a shambles.
Now, as to the specifics of their larceny. As noted, they don’t just walk off with sacks of cash. No: they devise baroque ripoff schemes that are more complicated than the plot of a Renaissance play. These subterfuges typically involve the creation – for purposes of money laundering – of any number of fake banks and holding companies in places like Luxembourg, Switzerland, Belize, and the Cayman Islands.
They also often involve the creation of fake companies that are awarded lucrative no-bid contracts for government projects, which are then subcontracted to real companies for lower sums, with the bolifunctionario pocketing the difference. Some of these guys are especially ambitious in their perfidy: in order to make it harder to follow the trail of stolen taxpayer cash, Aissami runs a “multilayered and vast network of shell companies” that are based in a range of countries and, on paper, are run by various friends and relatives.
Broad-scale nepotism and kickbacks are a standard part of the picture, too. Several of these guys, moreover, own sports teams, which provide a whole separate – and wonderfully rich – set of opportunities for illegal enrichment. Indeed, these gangsters have their fingers in all kinds of pies one didn’t even realize existed.
The result of all this masterful duplicity is that it can be difficult, in Venezuela, to know who really owns what, how much money they have, where it came from, and where exactly they’re keeping it. Victor Vargas, a bank president popularly known as the “Chávez banker,” is “widely believed to own Cadena Capriles,” the country’s biggest media conglomerate – but since it was purchased abroad through a proxy firm, nobody can be sure whether he owns it or not.
Eventually, many of these sleazeballs have been fingered as crooks, either by opposition politicians or by foreign governments, or both; in some cases, Venezuelan prosecutors have actually gone after them, with two or three of them becoming defendants in a dozen or more corruption-related lawsuits at a time. When they are caught red-handed, none of these guys ever evinces remorse or shame; the typical move, instead, is to denounce one’s accusers as enemies of the revolution and tools of American imperialism.
In any event, however much public attention is drawn to these flimflam men’s irregular activities, almost none of them ever loses his job. Yes, once in a long while one of them is actually fired for corruption – perhaps to make the regime look above-board, or perhaps just because the person in question has crossed the Dear Leader or become inconvenient to him. But for the most part, these malefactors enjoy absolute impunity.
Next time around: a rogues’ gallery of bolifuncionarios.