On the night of Friday, July 18, Benny Palmeri-Bacchi was on his way to the wonderful world of Disney in Orlando when he was arrested by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents at Miami International Airport. Palmeri-Bacchi, who was a judge in Venezuela, later appeared before a federal court on charges of cocaine trafficking, obstruction of justice, money laundering and extortion. He stands accused of preventing the deportation of one of Colombia’s most wanted drug lords between 2009 and 2010, with the aid of Interpol’s chief in Caracas. Lately, he has been working in the food trade. He was the director of the Venezuelan business association of Mercosur and owner of half-a-dozen businesses in southern Florida and in Venezuela. He was what Venezuelans in both countries call a bolibourgeois – as in Bolivarian bourgeoisie – the new oligarchy flourishing under the chavista regime. Its members – like other oligarchs in the past – like to invest their new and often ill-gotten wealth in Miami.
The source of these fortunes varies. They sometimes come from the drug trade and money laundering, or from corruption schemes in the oil bonanza, especially through government contracts and the currency-exchange channels established in 2003 with the explicit goal of preventing capital flight. In January, Former Finance Minister Jorge Giordani admitted that the state sold $20 billion at preferential prices to bribe companies in the import-export business between 2012 and 2013. Some of that money ended up in Florida, where it contributed to the recovery of the local housing market after the 2011 economic crisis.
This huge injection of Venezuelan capital came in doses. The greatest and most recent doses came from former bankers with government ties who were caught during a 2009 investigation of the banks and housing sector in Venezuela. Between 2009 and 2013, boliboys, young Caracas business owners with old money and links to the regime, invested heavily in Miami. Venezuelan military and mid-level public servants also rushed to protect their “savings” when President Hugo Chávez was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. Some high level officials who fell from grace after passing information about the regime’s shady dealings to the United States government also come to Miami. Others, still connected to the Nicolás Maduro administration, buy, invest and vacation in Florida. Some legislators want Washington to impose tough sanctions against these individuals for fraud and for their part in human rights violations in Venezuela.
These human rights violators have their investments in the United States,” a Republican senator said
“These human rights violators have their investments in the United States,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said. “When they steal in Venezuela, they often use front businesses and frontmen to invest the money in our economy, especially in Florida. There is no reason in the world why we should not go after these people for what they have done,” the Florida lawmaker argued as the Senate discussed a motion on sanctions against Venezuelan public servants. Most Democrats resisted the measure until July 30, when the White House announced its unilateral decision to revoke and deny visas to a group of high-ranking Venezuelan officials it considers “responsible or accomplices” in the repression of protests against Maduro, during which more than 40 people have died. The Obama administration did not reveal names or the number of individuals affected. The measure targets “ministers, presidential aides, senior justice department staff, even military and law officers.”
The US State Department changed course after Dutch authorities freed Venezuela’s ex-chief of military intelligence, Hugo Carvajal, a man wanted for drug related crimes in the United States. American authorities issued an extradition request for him and he was arrested in Aruba on July 24, the same day Palmeri-Bacchi had his first federal court date in the Southern District of Florida. The former intelligence boss was released after 72 hours because he had diplomatic immunity. In Caracas, the government welcomed him like a hero who had escaped “the empire.”
While Carvajal was in custody, the regime feared he had, like others, reached an agreement with US officials. In April 2012, former Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice Eladio Aponte Aponte fled to Costa Rica. He boarded a DEA plane to the United States and, once there, he publicly accused high-level officials of his home country’s government of drug related crimes and corruption of the justice system for political gain.
Ex-Lieutenant Alejandro Andrade had served as Chávez’s personal secretary, vice-minister, president of development funds, treasury secretary as well president of the public bank for development, Bandes. He reached an agreement with US authorities after they revoked his business visa in 2013 on account of his role in a bribery scheme worth millions.
“Andrade and the US government started talking about his possible cooperation in the summer of 2013 […]. His presence at the Wellington equestrian competitions in February and March 2014 suggested that the relationship was fruitful,” writes Miami-based Venezuelan journalist Casto Ocando in his book, Chavistas en el imperio: secretos, tácticas y escándalos de la revolución bolivariana en Estados Unidos (Factual, 2014). While still working in Venezuela, Andrade bought a riding school, Hollow Creek Farms, located in North Carolina. He shares the regime’s self-proclaimed penchant for thoroughbreds.
Arné Chácón – banker, ex-frigate lieutenant and brother of current Electric Energy Minister Jesse Chacón – also owned a stable, Gadu Racing Stable Corp., located half-an-hour outside of Miami. He bought it a few months before Chávez ordered his arrest for fraud in November 2009. He sold it before he was released on probation in December 2012. The property is now called Rontos Stable Corp. It belongs to Ronald Sánchez, the brother of Venezuela’s National Securities Commission Superintendent, Tomás Sánchez. Sánchez led the government’s 2009 investigation of seven financial entities, including Chacón’s bank.
The Miami area is home to Venezuela’s largest diaspora. Most of them are opposed to the regime and they have rejected the wealthy lifestyles of those whom they call “bolibourgeois.” On May 22, Miami-Dade officials, approved a symbolic resolution declaring Globovisión owners - Raúl Gorrín, Gustavo Perdomo and Juan Domingo Cordero - personae non gratae. The measure was taken up three days after El Nuevo Herald published a story about the expensive properties these men have in Cocoplum, Coral Gables – one of the most luxurious areas in southern Florida. “The owners of Globovision are hypocritically enjoying the benefits of our democracy while helping the Venezuelan government deny those benefits of human rights, freedom of speech, and democracy that we have in Miami, USA to the Venezuelan people,” the city wrote. A Globovisión partner, however, threatened to sue Miami for tarnishing his reputation without proof. At the last minute, the city decided to modify the document by removing the names of the business owners.
Translation: Dyane Jean François