Venezuela: The pandemic at the end of the world

José C. Ugaz SM*

How grand corruption and its functional kleptocracy destroyed a nation, condemning millions of Venezuelans to misfortune, a country which went from Bolivar’s dream to a never-ending nightmare. 

Grand corruption is like the coronavirus. Just as the coronavirus enters organisms silently and does not become visible until it has already taken hold of them, corruption undermines the structures of the State and its institutions in a subterranean manner until it is too late to prevent it. Like the virus, corruption does not distinguish between gender, age or social class, although it undoubtedly has the worst effects on the most vulnerable, for whom it is often fatal. And as we are seeing with COVID-19, corruption also deepens poverty and destroys the economy. Like the microorganism, it is easily contagious, spreads without limits, and has no cure. Only its terminal effects can be controlled with specific vaccines. Furthermore, it is not static. Corruption transforms itself like a new strain of COVID-19 resistant to antibodies which makes it very difficult to eradicate.

What has happened in Venezuela is not the story of a failed revolution or of an incompetent regime. Rather, a civil-military criminal network in power has deliberately dismantled the productive infrastructure of the country and created corrupt mechanisms to control food, gasoline, foreign currency and drugs in order to generate a black market in which key players have become fabulously rich. The socialist utopia has been buried under tons of corruption. 

According to Transparency Internationalgrand corruption is the “abuse of high-level power that benefits the few at the expense of the many and causes widespread and serious harm to individuals and society. It usually goes unpunished.” This type of corruption is characterized by the presence of several factors, which in the case of Venezuela, are fulfilled to the letter, like a textbook script:

Economic Factor: Venezuelan corruption involves a huge amount of resources. The figures of what the kleptocrats commanded by Chávez and Maduro have stolen in Venezuela are ridiculously grotesque. It is estimated that between 2002 and 2015, US $120 billion were diverted in corruption. Venezuela paid Odebrecht more than $20 billion for transportation works that were not carried out. The State has lost $31 billion through gasoline smuggling in the last decade, and in the “Money Flight” case alone, investigators have detected the embezzlement of US $1.2 billion. This does not include 5 other foreign corruption cases that add up to US$ 15 billion. However, any calculation is modest, considering that Venezuela Petroleum (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., PDVSA), the main source of looting of the regime, generated US $1.3 quadrillion dollars between 2001 and 2015.

Political Factor: The main perpetrators of looting are senior officials of the regime in power. A recent Vortex studyshows the existence of a “corruption super network” concentrated in a few governmental actors. Maduro concentrates 75% of the corrupt interactions (hub) and his recurring presence indicates his role as a structural bridge for network flows (betweenness), followed by other well-known figures of the regime, such as José Cabello, Tareck El Aisami, Diosdado Cabello, Delcy Rodríguez, Hugo Carbajal, Rafael Ramírez, Alejandro Andrade, Nervis Villalobos and accomplices such as Raúl Gorrín, Alejandro Betancourt, Alex Saab and José Murat, among others. 

Systemic Factor: As all investigations on corruption in Venezuela have shown, these are planned acts that are part of the complex criminal structure implemented by the regime, which involves high government officials, military leaders, and allies from the Venezuelan private sector (Bolivarian bourgeoisie or boliburguesía) and abroad.  

Social Factor: There is no doubt that grand corruption in Venezuela affects fundamental rights and political freedoms in a dramatic way and it does so to such an extent that it has generated a humanitarian crisis of horrifying dimensions. 61% of adults go to bed without eating twice a day; the average Venezuelan adult loses 11 kg a year (the average Venezuelan consumes less than 500 calories a day, when the recommended minimum is 2000); 33% of children experience stunted growth in lower-income sectors; 18.7 million people have no access to basic health care; and 20,000 children died between 2017 and 2019. There is a food mafia under the “Cajas CLAP” system, which has involved redirecting US $7 billion in 3 years. There is also an electric power and gasoline shortage crisis. Today, the thousands who eat out of the garbage in Venezuela are not indigent, they are families that have been impoverished as a result of the humanitarian crisis. More than 5,500,000 Venezuelans have been forced to migrate in very precarious situations, most of them living in inhumane conditions in various countries around the world. In terms of governance, the Venezuelan Intelligence Service’s (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN) repressive actions and violation of human rights is expressed in the dungeons that house hundreds of political prisoners in “La Tumba” and the “Helicoidal.” In recent days, criminal gangs promoted by the government have autonomized themselves and held a sector of Caracas under siege for three days with weapons including missile launchers and war equipment, leaving 27 dead.

Impunity Factor: Every kleptocracy ensures its own impunity. In Venezuela, the justice system has been co-opted by the corrupt network in power so that Supreme Court magistrates, the Attorney General and judges and prosecutors of various levels have been forced to emigrate abroad. The result is obvious: nobody investigates or punishes corruption in Venezuela (while abroad there are more than 85 criminal cases against Venezuelan kleptocrats for money laundering, corruption and drug trafficking).  

Although the popular adage states that “no evil lasts 100 years,” it is hoped that this terrible evil implemented against an entire nation will soon come to an end for the sake of millions of Venezuelans who have become innocent victims of the ambition of a few. This is the great challenge for the pro-democracy efforts in the country and the international community.  


*Partner at Benites, Vargas y Ugaz Abogados and former president of Transparency International.

Photo: AP Photo/Matias Delacroix

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Este es un espacio de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF, por sus siglas en inglés) en el que también colaboran las personas y organizaciones comprometidas con la vigencia de los derechos humanos en el continente americano. Aquí encontrará información y análisis sobre los principales debates y sucesos relacionados con la promoción del Estado de Derecho, los derechos humanos, la independencia judicial y el fortalecimiento de la democracia en América Latina. Este blog refleja las opiniones personales de los autores en sus capacidades individuales. Las publicaciones no representan necesariamente a las posiciones institucionales de DPLF o los integrantes de su junta directiva. / This blog is managed by the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) and contains content written by people and organizations that are committed to the protection of human rights in Latin America. This space provides information and analysis on current debates and events regarding the rule of law, human rights, judicial independence, and the strengthening of democracy in the region. The blog reflects the personal views of the individual authors, in their individual capacities. Blog posts do not necessarily represent the institutional positions of DPLF or its board.

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