In my previous column, I expressed some serious concerns about the construction of a 70-million-dollar baseball stadium in Caracas. Was it the right thing to do amidst so many problems? Was it appropriate to prioritize sports over issues such as education or healthcare?
As it turned out, a mere couple of weeks later, government revelations dwarfed my dilemma: a mafia operating in the state oil company (PDVSA) and the Crypto Assets Superintendency (SUNACRIP) allegedly siphoned off some $3 billion from the oil industry. Around 40 stadiums, give or take…
Furthermore, a few media outlets ventured that the plundering of PDVSA can be even more serious after a series of intermediaries were simply allowed to take crude cargoes without paying. That’s why the new PDVSA president and oil minister, Pedro Tellechea, decided to suspend contracts and begin demanding payment upfront.
As a result of the ongoing anti-corruption probe, there are currently 10 public officials and 11 businessmen behind bars. But I think there are a lot of things to unpack. In my view, they show that in political terms, Venezuela is completely adrift.
1. After launching the investigation, the government has done little more than repeat a statement that is just as true as it is uncalled for. “There is corruption now, but it was worse before.” Venezuela was indeed a paradise for corruption. Hugo Chávez swept to the presidency in 1998 because he was the only candidate who represented something new. That is precisely why it is pathetic that whenever and issue pops up, the only recipe is to draw comparisons to the Fourth Republic (before Chávez) to say “it used to be worse.” There needs to be some dignity in choosing the measuring stick.
2. Opposition leaders, including Julio Borges (a thief with a capital “T”) were on the scene to voice their opinions about these measures with a straight face and even demanded explanations! They did so as if their hands were clean or they had any kind of moral authority. In fact, the king of gall Juan Guaidó went as far as saying (I’m paraphrasing): “See? That’s why we took hold of CITGO and the UK gold.” In other words, I’m a more reliable thief than they are.
There isn’t a single opposition figure that is worth his salt. None has even a remote possibility or capability of ruling this country. This reality felt good a few years ago, it signaled a “clear path” for Chavismo to build its project. Truth be told, it now frightens me. I’m an inch away from subscribing to the mantra that governments need serious opposition rivals that can make them tremble. Not via sanctions, coup attempts, etc., but with a credible project.
3. US sanctions have wreaked terrible damage on the Venezuelan oil industry (they hamper access to spare parts and diluents, block exports and access to credit, etc.) and on the country in general. However, the initiatives to try and counter them, including the Anti-Blockade Law, have become a perfect cover for a select few businesses associated to different political factions (not just the government). Fast forward and we arrive at this network of dishonest or unreliable handpicked intermediaries.
4. No one listens to the people. There are tons of voices, from “reasonable” opposition characters to hardcore, grassroots Chavistas, who have been denouncing corruption for years. They point the finger at the opulent displays of newfound riches that have become ever more common. But then we had some extremist opposition leaders claiming that a good ol’ US invasion would fix everything, while government spokespeople were busy accusing critics of treason. Here we are years later and they now say “our activists are wise, they knew about this, let’s all go march against corruption (even if some high-ranking officials are among those suspected of corruption). Let’s all scream “the majority is honest!”. How is this possible after taking down any and all who denounced irregularities, for example jailing honest workers like Aryenis Torrealba and Alfredo Chirinos for opposing corruption in the oil industry?
Eleven years ago, I wrote an article making fun of (far-right opposition leader) María Corina Machado, who during a memorable press conference could not answer a question of how much a subway ticket cost. Now, as I listen to state officials claim they discovered that detainee X lived a luxurious life, I feel an equivalent level of outrage as I did back then. María Corina has probably never ridden the subway, but have state officials never gotten on Instagram (where this opulence was on full display)?
5. Last but not least, at least for me, state media policy has been an absolute disaster. We knew something was up amidst the whirlwind of fake news coming from opposition sources. What was right and what was made up? Tareck El Aissami resigned from the oil ministry in a tweet and has more than three weeks off the radar. But the spokespeople of this anti-corruption operation would have us believe he is clean, knew nothing about the schemes and is collaborating with the investigations.
The country’s public comptroller, Elvis Amoroso, only talked after (ruling party vice president) Diosdado Cabello and President Nicolás Maduro had made statements. Amoroso was full of smiles a couple of months ago when he received a report from SUNACRIP. He now read a quick-and-dirty statement saying he supported “whatever Maduro said.” So what exactly is the comptroller doing? Attorney General Tarek William Saab was the last one to take the stage. He offered more details peppered with philosophical quotes, but essentially backed what Maduro and Cabello had said. In the meantime, state broadcaster VTV is busy editing videos where those now under arrest feature prominently, smiling, hugging or applauding high-ranking leaders. When it’s all said and done, we still don’t know what triggered the storm, how much money was pilfered, where it ended up, whether there is any chance of getting it back, etc.
Recent history shows that in Venezuela no one is going to surrender. This latest episode also shows that it’s impossible to get bored in Venezuela, though not always for the best reasons. The struggle continues.
Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translated by Ricardo Vaz for Venezuelanalysis.