Venezuela is no longer a country with a government, institutions and a civil society. It’s a geographic area terrorized by a criminal enterprise that pretends to govern, with a civil society made up of two sets of people: accomplices and victims.
More than 30 million of the latter.
The Hugo Chavez-led looting spree began in 2000. By “looting,” I mean fraudulent government contracts, a celebration of bribery, phantom payrolls across all government ministries, bogus government-grant programs, the sacking of Venezuela’s gold reserves and a massive currency-exchange scam.
More than $1 trillion has disappeared — some of it wasted on social programs that produced nothing — and a staggering amount has ended up in bank accounts in Andorra, Panama, New York, Hong Kong and Switzerland.
And the pillaging has turned Venezuela into a dystopian landscape. There are shortages of every imaginable foodstuff and basic necessity; diseases once thought eradicated are back with a vengeance; and a crime wave that has given Caracas the highest murder rate in the world.
Loving parents are putting their children up for adoption because they have nothing to feed them; the elderly are starving; patients with treatable conditions are dying in hospitals that lack basic medicine like insulin and oxygen, where vital equipment has been pilfered and emergency rooms operate without electricity. In a gruesome twist, even the morgues can’t handle the number of unclaimed bodies, so they rot in hallways.
In one city just before Christmas, more than 80 percent of supermarkets, bodegas and food stores were looted. The ransacking spread to private homes. Meanwhile, the government does little to stop the disorder. The more chaos there is, the less President Nicolas Maduro needs to worry about antigovernment protests or marches.
Meanwhile, those in power can focus on what they do best: looting the country’s natural-resource wealth and manufacturing and trafficking illegal narcotics. In fact, Maduro just upped his game by appointing Tareck el-Aissami, a drug kingpin, as vice president.
How did it come to this? Venezuela’s woes begin and end with a complete breakdown in the rule of law. From the presidency to the lowest civil servant, being “on the take” went from scandalous to a way of life.
I sued a group of Venezuelan criminals, accusing them of corruption in a Florida courtroom. The defendants starred in the most notorious case of sleaze inside Venezuela: the Derwick Associates case.
Imagine a group of 20-something American-educated Venezuelans who have never had any experience whatsoever in government contracting, let alone building power plants.
In 14 months, they obtained 12 contracts to build electric power plants for the government. They hired an American company to build nonfunctioning plants and then overbilled Venezuela’s government by more than $1 billion. These “Chavezkids” (Bolichicos) shamelessly bribed government officials.
And what did they do with the stolen money? They used US, Canadian and Andorran banks to launder and conceal the cash.
Then they lived like kings, purchasing real estate all over the world, including a $30 million hunting estate in Spain; renting a Fifth Avenue brownstone at 75th Street; buying an Olympic Tower penthouse across from Rockefeller Center, million-dollar beachfront condos in Miami’s Sunny Isles neighborhood, apartments in Paris, fancy cars and a $20 million passenger jet. Recently, they put $53 million of the stolen Venezuelan money into a sunglass start-up in Spain called Hawkers.
According to Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal, federal and New York City prosecutors opened criminal investigations into Derwick’s principals Alejandro Betancourt and Pedro Trebbau. In Venezuela? Crickets.
The legislature made a big deal of investigating Derwick but after enough money was spread to the right committee heads, the investigation came to nothing. Furthermore, the outgoing head of the legislature happens to be the brother-in-law of one of Derwick’s shareholders, Francisco D’Agostino.
When I started looking into the case, it wasn’t long before they began offering me bribes, too.
The Derwick case is one of hundreds just like it in Venezuela, a country rotting from the top. And once they’ve gotten the stolen booty, slime like the Derwick boys doesn’t stay in Venezuela. It moves to Miami, Madrid or Manhattan. Florida, Texas and New York are home to thousands of crooked Venezuelans who bear significant responsibility for the current financial crisis there.
Let’s hope that, since there won’t be Venezuelan justice, the US justice system does right by the millions of Venezuelan victims.