A Venezuelan securities regulator sits in the dock, charged with demanding a $750,000 (€553,000) bribe from the owner of a brokerage under government receivership. A Florida man stands accused for money laundering after offering accounts to help Venezuelan currency traders move dollars.
What’s most astonishing about these white-collar prosecutions is that they aren’t being pursued by Venezuelan officials with jurisdiction over them. Instead, it’s the United States using its role as the world’s financial hub to expose potentially embarrassing secrets of Hugo Chávez’s régime.
The US started to flex its muscles following the 2007 case of a briefcase stuffed with $800,000 (€590,000), carried by a man named Guido Antonini from Caracas to Buenos Aires on a jet rented by Argentina’s state-oil company.
The mystery attracted weeks of front-page stories across the continent, and Argentina and Venezuela indicted Antonini, but it was the US that sent people to jail. The country Chávez calls “the empire” charged four men as unregistered Venezuelan agents for pressuring Antonini to keep the money’s source quiet. Evidence implicated the Venezuelan vice president’s office, state-oil company PDVSA and even Argentine President Cristina Kirchner’s reelection, all of which denied wrongdoing.
Most recently, US regulators in January accused a Connecticut hedge fund manager of taking $53m (€39m) stolen from PDVSA’s retirement fund. The court documents have already started a scandal in Venezuela, inflamed by anti-Chávez lawmakers. They claim that the hedge fund profited from Venezuelan currency trading while working for the state oil company. “There’s a huge amount of uncharged behaviour in the US by Venezuelans involved in criminal activity in their own country,” said Kenneth Rijock, a former money launderer who tracks international financial crime for World-Check. As long as the US finds it “politically incorrect” to go after the régime directly, he said, it will harass Chávez by pursuing his agents.
Chávez’s supporters and opponents both agree that the US pays extra attention to Venezuelans to tar his self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist government. Chávez’s foreign minister Nicolas Maduro, said in 2007 that the Argentine briefcase charges were “rigged” and that key witnesses had been “blackmailed”.
In a country with at least 40 homicides a day, the police are overwhelmed, and because of a weak division of powers, people close to the government are rarely charged, even when corruption is there for all to see. At the same time, the central bank effectively forces citizens to break the law if they want to take part in the global economy, by restricting trades in currency other than bolivars.
With Caribbean financial havens a close yacht ride from Venezuela’s coast, it may seem odd that financial criminals take their chances with US authorities that may be biased against their country. But as long as the dollar remains the Americas’ universal currency, successful Caracas residents keep fleeing to Florida, and currency controls force people into the black market, US prosecutors will have plenty of Venezuelans to choose from.