More on those “Circles”

We’ve been looking at the “Bolivarian Circles,” Venezuela’s nationwide network of violent chavista terrorist cells that, ever since its founding in 2001, has been masquerading as a harmless chain of community-service groups. One of the most prominent figures in the Circles, who died in 2011, is deserving of special notice. Her name was Lina Ron, and she was widely seen as the very personification of what the Circles were all about. She was an anarchic, violence-happy woman who seems to have had some very serious psychological issues. Her favorite slogan was “With Chávez, everything; without Chávez, bullets.”

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Lina Ron with Hugo Chávez

Ron became famous for setting fire to an American flag in a Caracas square shortly after 9/11. She went on in 2004 to found the fiercely pro-Chávez Venezuelan People’s Unity Party, whose members she herself characterized – approvingly, of course – as “radicals, hardliners and men and women of violence.” (The party was later folded into Chávez’s own PSUV.) In 2009, Ron led “a violent attack on the offices of the pro-opposition television station, Globovision,” for which even Chávez felt obliged to lock her up for a couple of months. Ron called herself the “ugly part” of the Bolivarian Revolution; after her death, a commenter on her El Universal obit called her the Revolution’s Joan of Arc.

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There are also Bolivarian Circles in the U.S. Here’s one in Miami.

What kind of activities, you might ask, do the Circles engage in? The proper response to which is: what kind of activities don’t they engage in? A 2009 report stated that Diosdado Cabello (the thuggish National Assembly president whom we looked at back in May) and Ramón Rodríguez Chacín (whom we met a couple of days ago) “shared responsibility for training, arming and deploying paramilitary street forces under the guise of Bolivarian Circles.” In a 2013 book, Jeff D. Colgan noted that opposition critics of the Bolivarian Circles have been “violently persecuted”; he also reported on charges that the Venezuelan government had armed the Circles “in a bid to turn them into a fighting force that could sustain the government in the event of civil conflict.” In addition, Colgan pointed out that

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Members of the Bolivarian Circles at a 2006 congress

The structure and purpose of the Bolivarian Circles bear a striking resemblance to similar organs of “participatory democracy” in repressive countries such as Cuba and Libya. It is widely suspected that Chavez modeled the Bolivarian Circles on the Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs). Like the Circles, the Cuban CDRs are designed to provide public services at a neighborhood level and to report ‘counter-revolutionary’ activity. In Libya, the equivalent organizations are called Revolutionary Committees, which like the Bolivarian Circles, establish clientelistic relationships with the state leadership. It seems likely that Chavez got the idea for the Bolivarian Circles from Castro and Qaddafi. In all three countries, the organizations served the same three purposes: build and maintain political support for the revolutionary regime; distribute public services; and provide information about potential threats to the regime.

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Mary Anastasia O’Grady

Last year, the Wall Street Journal‘s Mary Anastasia O’Grady cited the Bolivarian Circles in chiding OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet for their claims that the Maduro government in Venezuela is democratic. Documents in O’Grady’s possession, she wrote, showed “that Chávez had an active program early on to corrupt and politicize the military and to build a paramilitary within the Bolivarian Circles….Today organized snipers and gunmen on motorcycles roam the streets and kill with impunity.” It was clear, O’Grady underscored, that these goons were working for Maduro. “Any government that unleashes brown shirts to indiscriminately kill in order to sow terror among its opponents,” she pronounced, “does not qualify as a democracy.”

Alas, there are untold millions of people, both in Venezuela and around the world, who still don’t grasp that simple point, and who persist in clinging to romantic illusions about chavismo. To which we can only say the following: if you can look squarely at the facts about the Bolivarian Circles and still maintain those illusions, there’s no hope for you.  

Rogues’ gallery

Last time around we offered an overview of that species known as the bolifunctionario – the small-time, big-ticket racketeers with whom Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, have surrounded themselves, and who have become billionaires at the expense of Venezuelan voters. Now, let’s look at a few of these hooligans individually.

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Alejandro Andrade

Alejandro Andrade is an old pal of Chávez for whom an injury in a game of “chapitas” (a variation on baseball) turned into riches. In the game, Chávez threw a soda or beer cap which Andrade was supposed to hit with a broomstick; instead, the cap struck Andrade in the eye, half-blinding him for life. Chávez paid Andrade back by putting him in charge, in turn, of various public funds and, eventually, the National Treasury; while in these jobs, according to investigations by the FBI, DEA, SEC, and State Department, Andrade stole billions of dollars, which he spent on (among other things) a Florida mansion, a South Carolina farm, a Lear jet, some 150 thoroughbred horses, and a majority stake in a major TV channel.

To read through the list of Andrade’s ploys is to admire his ingenuity and versatility. For example, while head of the country’s Social Development Bank (a.k.a. Bandes), he made at least $66 million in kickbacks by selling Venezuelan bonds to a New York broker and buying them back at inflated prices. Andrade also put together a system that managed to provide funds for the ruling PSUV party while also enriching him and his confederates in the scheme. He’s so good at sponging up cash, indeed, that Chávez, just before his death, paid him the ultimate compliment – he wrote a letter placing his daughters’ future economic security in Andrade’s hands.

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Alejandro Betancourt, Pedro Trebbau López

Pedro Trebbau López and Alejandro Betancourt are the quintessential bolichicos – co-founders of Derwick Associates, a company that materialized out of thin air in 2007 and almost immediately began winning government contracts to build power plants, an activity in which neither Trebbau nor Betancourt had any expertise whatsoever. The firm is accused of having overbilled the government by some $3 billion and of paying at least $50 million in bribes, and together or separately its two principals own a Falcon plane, a Bell helicopter, a home in Miami, an office on Park Avenue, and a farm in Spain.

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Diosdado Cabello

Chávez crony Diosdado Cabello is President of the National Assembly, which he runs like a thug – silencing, intimidating, and even, on one occasion, ordering the beating of opposition legislators right there in the chamber. Known unaffectionately as “The Godfather,” he owns a slew of banks and insurance firms and also supposedly has his hand in some shady companies that run the Caracas ports. At last count, he was the defendant in at least 17 corruption cases, one of which accuses him of having received at least $50 million in bribes from Derwick Associates.

Also worth a mention is Cabello’s brother José David Cabello, who has served as head of the international airport in Caracas, Minister of Infrastructure, and President of the National Customs and Tax Administration (Seniat), without having a background in any of these fields.

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Rafael Ramírez

Rafael Ramírez held several high-level energy posts before serving briefly last year as Foreign Minister; he’s now UN ambassador. While head of the state oil firm, PDVSA, he ordered employees “to vote for Chávez or else.” With three cronies, he rearranged the processing of Venezuela’s oil income to make it utterly lacking in transparency, resulting in a system that one industry source called “rotten to the core” and that ultimately achieved the impossible: bankrupting the state oil firm of one of the world’s leading oil powers.

Then there’s Ramírez’s cousin Diego Salazar, who – thanks to a multimillion-dollar insurance policy Ramírez took out on PDVSA – 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. He’s been investigated by the U.S. Senate for corruption – but it would take more than that to cramp his style.

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Tarek El Aissami

We’ve already mentioned Tarek El Aissami, governor of the state of Aragua and head of the ruling PSUV party. The American Enterprise Institute has called him “thuggish,” but this seems like a polite understatement. It may sound like a joke, but Aissami’s dad actually ran the Venezuelan branch of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, and Aissami himself – who was a college friend of Chávez’s brother – came to be known as Chávez’s personal link to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

Aissami has funneled cash to these groups, and when he was head of the agency that produces national ID cards, he provided Venezuelan cover identities to some of their members. As if that weren’t impressive enough, he also recruited young PSUV members to train in Lebanon for guerrilla war against the U.S.

But aiding and abetting terrorism is just a sideline for Aissami, whose main activity, it seems, has been sponging up taxpayer money and laundering it through his “multilayered and vast network of shell companies,” the chart of which looks more complex than the organization of the U.S. government itself.

(Bonus factoid: Aissami’s brother Firaz is involved with drug trafficking and has over $21 million in a Swiss bank.)

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Wilmer Ruperti

Shipping magnate Wilmer Ruperti, who thanks to “illegal deals with corrupt thugs” became “the go-to guy for nearly all PDVSA-shipping needs,” provides a fine example of the cartoonish extent to which Venezuelan self-enrichment schemes can go: in order to fool a Russian firm into thinking it was chartering oil tankers to PDVSA, Ruperti set up “an elaborate network of shell companies,” giving one of them a name very close to that of PDVSA, and leased tankers from the Russian firm, then rented them to PDVSA at a hefty profit. Alas for him, U.S. and U.K. authorities got wind of his dodge and took him to court; in the U.K. case, he had to pay $59 million in damages. But he’s not suffering: he owns a bulletproof BMW, a jet, a veritable palace in Caracas, and a Miami Beach mansion that, on paper, is owned by (of all people) Gloria Estefan’s husband.

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Victor Vargas

Victor Vargas, who runs several banks and companies around the world, has long been known as the “Chávez Banker.” Translation: he’s said to have “made a backroom deal with Chávez’s government to handle some of the revolution’s murkier financial transactions.” As we’ve noted, Vargas may or may not own Cadena Capriles, Venezuela’s largest media conglomerate, which was purchased through a proxy on the island of Curaçao; if he does own it, moreover, he’s probably a front for the government, which has an interest in controlling as much of the nation’s media as possible. Vargas owns a major polo team, a stable of 60 ponies, a private fleet of jets, two yachts, a helicopter, homes in Europe, a huge estate in Venezuela, and mansions in Santo Domingo and Palm Beach.

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Luisa Ortega Díaz

Luisa Ortega Díaz is Venezuela’s General Prosecutor, a position she’s used to undermine media rights and to imprison journalists and politicians (notably opposition leader Leopoldo López). In 2009 she proposed a Media Crimes Law to curb “the irrational use of power by the media” and “regulate freedom of expression.” While ignoring the embezzlement by officials of truckloads of cars, motorcycles, computers, cameras, and other government-owned items, she’s used forged evidence to prosecute opposition legislators; and while threatening to “severely punish” so-called “hoarders” of basic foodstuffs – a widespread and thoroughly understandable phenomenon in Venezuela, where things are so screwed-up that you can’t be sure you’ll be able to buy bread, butter, or milk any time in the next few weeks – she’s been photographed shopping at high-end boutiques on the Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris.

All this, note well, is just a small sampling of the sleazy operators who make up the Maduro regime.

[NOTE: Corrected on December 22, 2015, to reflect the fact that Rafael Ramírez, at the time this post went up, was UN ambassador, not Minister of Finance.]