Venezuelan Military Officers Charged with Corruption

17 military officers were charged with corruption for embezzling $1.3 million from a sugar plantation in the state of Barinas. The Minister of Agriculture denied he new about the charges a year ago, as some had reported.

Caracas, Venezuela, 16 February 2006—A group of 17 Venezuelan military officers are being sent to court accused of corruptly managing a sugar-processing plant. Venezuelan Defence Minister Orlando Maniglia said on Tuesday they were being charged with, “administrative irregularities.”

The group is being accused of taking $1.3 million from the accounts of the Ezequiel Zamora sugar-processing plant in Sabaneta de Barinas in the state of Barinas. The plant is owned by the Ministry of Land and Agriculture but was being run by military officers.

This was as part of the government’s civil-military alliance strategy to develop the country. The officers involved in the Ezequiel Zamora plant were from the 62nd Regiment of Engineers and were supposed to assist with food technology.

The problems were uncovered by a special anti-corruption committee of the Venezuelan National Assembly. They reported that from 2003 to 2004 projects paid for did not happen and others were contracted to family members of the officers.

When the allegations first became public in January, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reacted strongly. Speaking on Alo Presidente, his regular weekly talk show, Chavez said the betrayal of these offers was unforgivable. If it was in his power he would punish the guilty by putting them up against a wall and having them shot, Chavez said.

Minister of Land and Agriculture Antonio Albarrán has been criticised for comments he has made about the situation. Last Tuesday, Albarrán was reported as saying he received a report about the corruption at the Ezequiel Zamora plant in 2004. Albarran was reported as saying he did not make the report public then because, “we were in an election campaign and it would have blown things up.” It was assumed this referred to the regional elections of October 2004. 

Albarran said today his comments were, “taken out of context, because I didn’t hold any report.” The first official report came to him on 23 September 2005, Albarran said.

A spokesperson for the Ministry said information about corruption at the Ezequiel Zamora plant had arrived in 2004. The spokesperson said it was policy to conduct an investigation first before giving the public any information.

Both Albarran and Chavez condemned corruption in Venezuela. Albarran said that corruption is, “a cultural problem” in Venezuela that must be changed. Chavez said Venezuela must fight a long battle, “against irregularities and inefficiency, and this is one case.”