Yesterday we became reacquainted with longtime chavista Rafael Ramírez, currently Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations and the subject of a multifaceted corruption probe by U.S. authorities who are looking into his activities as ten-year head of the PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil entity.
The Wall Street Journal, in an extensive October article, served up some of the goods on him. Back when he was in charge of PDVSA, according to one insider, Ramírez “ran the company like a family business.” The Journal served up an anecdote: the directors of a Spanish construction company arrived at the presidential suite of a Caracas hotel to talk with Ramírez, with whom they’d agreed to discuss their possible involvement in a $1.5 billion government project. Instead of meeting Ramírez, however, they were received by Ramírez’s cousin, Diego Salazar, who told them that they’d “have to pay at least $150 million in kickbacks to be in the running” for the contract. If they weren’t prepared to pony up that sum pronto, said Salazar, they were welcome to return immediately to the airport and fly back to Spain.
(They said no, by the way.)
Salazar, too, as it happens, is now under U.S. investigation. We’ve met him before on this site, and have noted that – thanks to his well-placed cousin – he “went in a trice from being a lowly insurance salesman to being one of the richest men in the country, owning a private plane, a private orchestra of some 100 musicians, ‘almost all the apartments’ in a Caracas luxury complex, and much else.” The Wall Street Journal‘s October report added some more colorful details:
People close to Mr. Salazar say he enjoyed a life of private jets and sumptuous meals in the company of beauty pageant contestants. He was known to lead his own private orchestra, singing romantic ballads in concerts attended by friends and employees, these people say.
“He loves to flaunt his money in people’s faces,” says the former top Venezuelan government official who knows Messrs. Salazar and Ramírez.
In the car-clogged streets of Caracas where traffic often slows to a crawl, Mr. Salazar drives a Ferrari—followed by an SUV full of bodyguards. He is so obsessed with expensive watches, friends say, that he sometimes hands out new Rolexes to people who attend his parties after first ceremonially grinding their old watches into scrap in a mortar and pestle he keeps handy.
In transcripts of conversations taped by Spanish police, Mr. Salazar’s acquaintances refer to him as “el Señor de los Relojes,” or “Mr. Wrist Watch.”
About that U.S. probe: among the institutions that figure in it is Banca Privada d’ Andorra (BPA), a bank in the tiny principality of Andorra, which was used by Ramírez, Salazar, and other corrupt chavistas to launder over $4 billion in dirty money, about half of it from PDVSA. The findings of the U.S. investigators led to the bank’s seizure by Spanish and Andorran authorities; Spain, too, is now looking into the hijinks of Messrs. Ramírez and Salazar. Documents reportedly show that “Salazar received hundreds of millions of dollars in his accounts in Andorra from firms, many of them shell companies in Panama, Belize and the British Virgin Islands,” and that he “gave Venezuelan police an $80,000 bribe to ignore suspicious transactions.”
It will be fascinating to see how this all plays out now that the Venezuelan parliament is finally in the hands of the democratic opposition.