By William Camacaro and Frederick B. Mills
In an investigative report, “Envoys of Guaidó Appropriate Funds for Humanitarian Assistance in Colombia” (June 14, 2019), Editor in Chief of PanAm Post, Orlando Avendaño, details the alleged “diversion of money, embezzlement of funds, inflation of bills, fraud, and threats [by representatives of self proclaimed president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó] in order to surround themselves with luxuries.” (1)
These allegations of fraud committed by functionaries of Guaidó in Colombia are raising alarm within the fractured Venezuelan opposition about the political damage this might do to their cause, but for critics of the US backed shadow Venezuelan government, this is just the tip of the iceberg, with the expectation of more such revelations of fraud to come.
Among a trove of documentary evidence, including itemized invoices, Avendaño provides a copy of a letter from Guaidó to Carlos Holmes Trujillo Garcia, Minister of Foreign Relations of the Republic of Colombia, dated February 24, 2019. In the letter, Guaidó designates Kevin Rojas and Rossana Barrera, both members of the right wing opposition Venezuelan political party, Voluntad Popular (VP), to “attend to the situation” of Venezuelan military personnel and civilians who “enter Colombian territory seeking help and refuge.” Avendaño points out that “Rossana Barrera is the sister-in-law of National Assembly Deputy of the party Voluntad Popular, Sergio Vergara, right hand man of president Juan Guaidó.” She was part of Guaidó’s inner circle.
To put Guaidó’s letter in context, we move our focus for a moment to the frontier town of Cúcuta, Colombia, which is just across the border from the Venezuelan town of San Cristóbal, Táchira. (2) We return to the events of February 23, 2019, that fateful day when US and Colombian backed Guaidó and his supporters had planned to force a convoy of “humanitarian aid” trucks over the border, with the objective of scoring a propaganda victory against the Maduro administration and inspiring army defections, all as a prelude to a coup against the constitutional government of Venezuela.
The US-Colombian-Venezuelan opposition alliance pulled out all the stops; there was to be a media show on a grand scale surrounding the actions in Cúcuta. A concert fundraiser, Venezuela Live Aid, starring Richard Branson, was held on February 22, and a media campaign gave the impression that Guaidó’s aim was to deliver “humanitarian assistance” for Venezuela. But the plan began to unravel as soon as it commenced. The three million dollars raised by the concert is still not accounted for. And the majority of the food on the trucks would end up rotting in place. Neither the International Red Cross nor the United Nations would lend credibility to Washington’s insistence that this was a “humanitarian” mission. The whole project was tainted by the obvious ulterior motive of attempting to bring about regime change in Venezuela.
An important part of the plan was to inspire massive army defections through carrot and stick pronouncements emanating from Washington. It was presumably the last chance for soldiers to avoid punishment and reap the rewards of desertion. Though Guaidó promised to welcome army deserters as heroes, the defections did not reflect any serious breach in the Venezuelan military. It did create a need, however, to coordinate and fund the room and board of several hundred military personnel and their families who answered the call. (3) According to Avendaño’s sources, once housed at a seven area hotels, some of these “heroes” of the shadow government were not always on their best behavior:
“The small army on which the president [Guaidó] counted, but until now gave a bad impression in Cúcuta. Prostitutes, alcohol and violence. They demanded and demanded. In the end, that was not for free.”
As the “humanitarian” funds started flowing to pay the expenses being racked up by the military defectors as well as the exorbitant spending of the envoy’s charged with overseeing those payments, an international media campaign gave the impression that President Nicolás Maduro was opposed to receiving humanitarian assistance. Although Maduro was not about to welcome the Trojan Horse from Cúcuta, there had been and continues to be ongoing deliveries of authentic humanitarian aid coordinated by UN agencies as well as the International Red Cross. And two weeks after initial false reports in the Western media that Maduro’s forces were responsible for setting aid trucks on fire on the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge, it was finally acknowledged by the New York Times on March 10th that video evidence shows it was most likely Guaidó supporters whose molotov cocktails, inadvertently or not, caused the fires. (4)
In the aftermath of the “humanitarian aid” debacle of February 23, Guaidó still had a promise to keep to several hundred defectors and their families. According to documents provided to Avendaño by Colombian Intelligence, Guaidó’s emissaries were in charge of the disbursement of funds to cover the cost of military deserters and their families staying at two of seven hotels. He alleges that Barrera and Rojas misappropriated funds slated for humanitarian purposes to party and surround themselves with luxuries.
“Colombian Intelligence was the first to specify the anomaly. They brought me the evidence. Invoices that show excesses and, several, very strange, of different checkbooks, signed the same day and with identical handwriting styles. Almost all without a seal. Costs exceeding three million pesos a night at Colombian hotels and nightclubs. Some one thousand dollars in food and drink. Spending on clothing in very expensive stores in Bogotá and in Cúcuta. Reports of vehicle rentals and payments to overpriced hotels. The money flowed. Lots of money.”
Fallout from the PanAm Post Report
Within a matter of hours Avendaño’s report had spread on social media; major Venezuelan newspapers from across the political spectrum carried headlines with calls by some opposition figures to conduct an audit of the expenses in question. These allegations of corruption, coming from a right of center media outlet were not to be taken lightly.
Voluntad Popular (VP), which finds itself at the center of the maelstrom, issued a statement calling into question the charges made in the PanAm Post, declaring that “the interim government does not manage international funds of humanitarian assistance.” VP stated: “The funds were and are managed by the governments of Colombia and the USA, agencies of cooperation, international non-governmental organizations (ONG), among others. But the National Assembly (AN) did not administer funds in Colombia for humanitarian materials.” Nevertheless, the charges and the evidence presented against some of their associates are somewhat compelling. So it is not surprising that VP has also joined calls for an investigation in order “to get to the bottom of things.” (5)
The centrist Venezuelan periodical El Universal reported on June 15 that Guaidó himself called on Colombian intelligence to investigate the alleged corruption of his envoys. (6) Guaidó tweeted: “Delegation in Colombia has managed with austerity and economic limitations situation of military personnel in that country. In the face of denunciations, I ask Ambassador Humberto Calderón Berti to formally request from Colombian intelligence agencies the necessary investigation. Transparency first of all!” Berti responded that an investigation had already been underway and that he was “working on the final phase of an audit of this lamentable and sultry case.” The problem with an audit by Berti is that, according to Avendaño, Berti provided a payment to one of the hotels out of his personal finances, and his check ended up bouncing. This means he himself ought to be included in any investigation.
By June 17 this story was well known in Venezuela but back burner news in the US. Venezuela’s Globovisión ran the headline, Venezuela: “Humanitarian Assistance also includes alcohol and prostitutes? ). (7) The scandal is now in full swing and Guaidó, who just a few months ago was the darling of Washington and the Lima Group, is now in hot water, and some of his closest associates are running for cover.
Guaidó’s biggest political backer, however, still has no shame. In a tweet on June 14, Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, who has been a regime change fanatic, said:
“We ask the competent jurisdiction for an investigation that clarifies the serious charges formulated here, determine responsibilities and demand accountability. There is no possible democratization under the opacity of acts of corruption”. (8)
Coming from the General Secretary’s office, this likely faithfully conveys the State Department position on this particular issue.
Almagro’s tweet does raise an important question. What would be the “competent jurisdiction” to carry out such an investigation? What body has the democratic and legal credentials to carry out this urgent and important task? The OAS has lost such “competence” by allowing Almagro to use the multilateral organization to attack Venezuela and promote the confiscation of billions in Venezuelan assets.
What about Colombian intelligence which was reportedly not happy with the situation and was a major source for Avendaño’s article? Although Colombian Intelligence obviously has important evidence, and therefore ought to be part of a credible investigation, Colombia cannot serve as a “competent jurisdiction” because President Iván Duque has allied himself too closely with Guaidó to inspire confidence. And the US, which used “humanitarian assistance” in February as a pretext for advancing regime change, does not project moral authority in either Bogota or Caracas. If the investigation is conducted by a UN body, it may get credible results.
The government of Venezuela has indicated that it had already sought to expose Guaido’s faction within the opposition as a corrupt terrorist organization months before the PanAm Post revelations. Jorge Rodríguez, Communications Minister of Venezuela, gave a press conference on Monday providing more details relevant to this case, including the involvement of other members of Guiado’s inner circle in the scandal. (9) According to Rodríguez, there was also a diversion of funds to recruit mercenaries from other countries to wreak havoc inside Venezuela. In another press conference with President Maduro that same day, Rodríguez also alluded to a possible upcoming investigation by the US Department of Justice of allegations of corruption involving those assigned to direct CITGO on behalf of the shadow government. (10)
Political Implications: Time for Washington to Change Course
This PanAm Post article adds fuel to the fire of growing skepticism about the viability of the US backed Venezuelan shadow government, especially on the heels of self proclaimed president Juan Guaido’s failure to inspire a popular uprising, divide the military, or gain democratic legitimacy inside the Bolivarian Republic. It appears that most of Guaidó’s political leverage comes from the devastating toll wrought by US economic sanctions and the continuing threat of US military intervention. Both factors have caused growing antipathy inside Venezuela towards those conspiring to overthrow the government of President Nicolás Maduro and surrender the nation to US influence.
Corruption is no doubt a problem in both the private and public sectors in Venezuela. But this is an issue for Venezuelans to resolve. The PanAm Post report heightens the skepticism about what is happening to the billions in Venezuelan assets confiscated by the US to fund a corrupt client shadow government. And it is raising the temperature of indignation among those suffering the consequences of US economic sanctions while Guaidó and his inner circle live the high life in Bogota, Miami and Madrid. It is time for the US to change course and re-establish diplomatic ties with the Maduro administration which remains open to dialogue with Washington.
Note: Translations by the authors from Spanish to English are unofficial.
(1) Source: https://es.panampost.com/orlando-avendano/2019/06/14/enviados-de-guaido-se-apropian-de-fondos-para-ayuda-humanitaria-en-colombia/?cn-reloaded=1. Brackets added; Avendaño actually refers to Guaidó as “president” of Venezuela. See Luigino Bracci Roa (June 15, 2019 Alba Ciudad) for a good summary of this PanAm Post article, and an English translation of this summary published by the Orinoco Tribune (June 16, 2019).
(2) This borderland is the site of linked commerce. For example, when the sanctions cause gasoline shortages in Venezuela, the hardship is felt just as much in Cúcuta. On the Colombian-Venezuelan border economy, see Mills and Camacaro
(3) According to Avendaño, not all deserters were active duty soldiers coming in from Venezuela: “In view of the juicy offer of financial support, military personnel who had emigrated to Peru or Ecuador, old functionaries, civilians with falsified documents, presented themselves in Cúcuta to proclaim their presumed support for the new Government of the Venezuelan opposition.” PanAm Post, June 14, 2019.
(4) Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/world/americas/venezuela-aid-fire-video.html
(5) Source: http://www.noticierodigital.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=129118
(6) Source: https://www.eluniversal.com.co/colombia/guaido-pide-a-colombia-investigar-supuesta-corrupcion-de-sus-delegados-FK1286623. Guaidó’s tweet, original Spanish: Delegación en Colombia ha manejado con austeridad y limitaciones económicas situación de militares en ese país. Ante denuncias, pido al embajador Humberto Calderón Berti solicitar formalmente a organismos de inteligencia colombiana la investigación necesaria. íTransparencia ante todo!
(7) Source: https://www.globovision.com/article/venezuela-ayuda-humanitaria-tambien-incluye-alcohol-y-prostitutas
(8) Source: https://twitter.com/Almagro_OEA2015/status/1139658418573234179. Original Spanish: “Solicitamos a jurisdicción competente investigación esclarecedora de graves cargos aquí formulados, determinar responsabilidades y exigir rendición de cuentas. No hay democratización posible bajo la opacidad de actos de corrupción.”
(9) Source: https://www.laiguana.tv/articulos/502281-ministro-jorge-rodriguez-robo-escandalo-ayuda-humanitaria-pruebas/
(10) Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AEE4flR9qI&feature=youtu.be