Yesterday we became reacquainted with longtime chavistaRafael 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.
In late December, answering questions sent to him by the newspaper El Nacional, the popular, articulate Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López – who’s been in prison since February 2014 for the crime of being, well, a popular, articulate opposition leader – saidthat the next priority, after the seating of the pro-market, anti-chavista parliament that was elected on November 6, has to be the ousting of the country’s dictatorial honcho Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro’s term doesn’t end until 2019, but López, who was sentenced to a 14-year term and who’s expected to be released by the new parliament (which went into session yesterday) over a promised presidential veto, insisted that some legal way must be found to remove Maduro from office, so that Venezuelan citizens could regain control of their national institutions. “Today,” said López, “the unconstitutionally appointed Supreme Court continues to be hijacked.The Attorney General protects the powerful and in Venezuela the victims who dare to complain are the ones who end up imprisoned.”
It will be interesting to see whether the opposition actually does try to unseat Maduro when it gains control of the legislature. In any case, the president’s opponents already have announced a lengthy agenda, which addresses many of the issues – and useful stooges – we’ve discussed previously on this site. Among their proposals: improvements in legislation that would make possible the repatriation of taxpayer funds stolen by corrupt politicians and their cronies. The corrupt politicians include three pre-Chávez presidents, Luis Herrera Campins, Carlos Andrés Pérez, and Jaime Ramón Lusinchi. Among the chavista crooks they hope to target is Alejandro Andrade, aptly described as “the most emblematic figure of corruption” because of his “accumulation and ostentatious display of a five-billion-dollar fortune.” As we explained last May, Andrade got rich the old-fashioned way: back when he and Chavez were kids, Chávez inadvertently blinded him in one eye during a game of “chapitas”; later, when Chávez became the great caudillo, he installed Andrade in a series of jobs – ultimately head of the national treasury – that enabled him to steal epic amounts of cash by means of a variety of ingenious schemes.
And let’s not forget Rafael Ramírez, the Chávez crony (and, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, “soft-spoken son of a Marxist guerrilla”) who last year served briefly as Venezuela’s Foreign Minister. Before that he spent ten years (2004-2014) running the government-owned oil firm, PDVSA, where he commanded his underlings “to vote for Chávez or else” and tweaked the nation’s already corrupt oil racket in such a way as to make it, in the words of one obsever, “rotten to the core.” As we’ve noted, he “ultimately achieved the impossible: bankrupting the state oil firm of one of the world’s leading oil powers.”
Where is he now? Since December 2014 he’s been Venezuela’s man at the UN. In October he reacted with outraged to news of “a series of wide-ranging investigations” by American authorities into his tenure at PDVSA, the idea being to try to find out whether he and various amigos “used PDVSA to loot billions of dollars through kickbacks and other schemes” and “whether PDVSA and its foreign accounts were used for other illegal purposes, including black-market currency schemes and laundering drug money.” It’s an open secret that corruption is hardly a strong enough word to describe what Ramírez was up to at PDVSA, but Ramírez dutifully pulled off the outraged-innocent act, calling the U.S. probe “slander…a mass of lies and manipulation” and (of course) “part of a campaign…against our country, our government and our revolution.”
Last time around we offered an overview of that species known as the bolifunctionario – thesmall-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.]