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Venezuela doubles down on anti-corruption internal purges

Staunch heirs of the Hugo Chávez movement aim to recapture legitimacy through a radical public house cleaning

Nicolas Maduro announces Security Measures against Coronavirus in Venezuela
Former Minister of Petroleum Tareck El Aissami (center row left) and other dignitaries at a press conference with President Nicolás Maduro; Caracas; March 2020.Carolina Cabral (Getty Images)

The political purge started by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro under the banner of anti-corruption has led to the imprisonment of important political cadres and public officials. The house cleaning is unprecedented in the history of “chavismo,” the political movement started by deceased former president Hugo Chávez. One silent man stands in the eye of the storm – Tareck El Aissami – one of the most powerful figures in chavismo until he abruptly resigned his post as Minister of Petroleum in mid-March.

The ongoing anti-corruption purge dominates talk on the streets of Venezuela these days, conversations that are increasingly acerbic and incredulous. State-run radio and television outlets cautiously report the latest news, but social media platforms are boiling over with outrage and disappointment.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab has ordered 51 people, including high-ranking public officials and business executives linked to the Maduro regime, to appear in court for their alleged roles in a scheme to embezzle public funds from the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) oil company and the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (CVG) steel company. Saab reported that 262 other officials are being investigated. Saab declined to answer questions about potential charges against El Aissami.

Most of the well-known defendants – Hugbel Roa, Pedro Maldonado and Joselit Ramírez – are close friends of El Aissami, whose whereabouts are currently unknown. Another El Aissami crony, Hugo Cabezas, was the most recent high-profile arrest. Cabezas was president of Venezuela’s civil registry (SAIME) and a former governor of the state of Trujillo. Since 2018, Cabeza has been the general manager of Cartones de Venezuela, a cardboard manufacturer linked to the CVG steel company.

Some estimate that as much as $3 billion has been drained from the public coffers. Maduro professed “indignation” about the massive embezzlement and promised to claw back the money and invest it in public works and social programs.

This is not the first or even the most serious case of rampant corruption in the era of chavismo, but something else seems to have triggered the widespread purge that professes zero tolerance for ethical breaches and aims to recapture the movement’s legitimacy.

“Maintaining internal balance in chavismo is tricky,” said political scientist and author Colette Capriles. “Maduro will gain from all this, not because of the ethical issues, but because of a political imperative. The excesses of El Aissami and others have endangered the ruling coalition itself. Maduro desperately needs more income and social discontent is on the rise. He wants to implement social programs to position himself for the next elections, but doesn’t have the money to do it. Maduro feels he can gain politically from this [public corruption] initiative and solidify his authority.”

Stefania Vitale, an academic with the Center for Development Studies and the Central University of Venezuela, agrees with Capriles. “I think there was some surprise at the scale [of corruption], which coincides with all the current social tension. While the country certainly needs money, this is mostly about politics. Maduro is looking to recalibrate.”

Venezuela’s ruling party has been rocked by an enormous number of ideologically motivated resignations – Luis Miquilena, Henri Falcón, Ernesto Alvarenga, Gustavo Márquez, and Rodrigo Cabezas to name a few. Others have left for political, legal and personal disagreements, such as Andrés Izarra, Gabriela Ramírez, Luisa Ortega Díaz and Miguel Rodríguez Torres.

Little came of the multiple charges, legislative investigations, and news reports of corruption over the years. But Maduro and Chávez were quick to act when there was a political advantage to be had. When former Defense Minister Raúl Baduel, an influential military leader, confronted Hugo Chávez, his former friend and ally threw him in jail and charged him with corruption. It was obvious to all that Chávez viewed Baduel’s influence in the military ranks as a threat. Jorge Giordani, one of Chávez’s closest advisors and his longtime minister of planning, was kicked out of the party when Maduro became president because of his unrestrained criticism of recent economic policies and corruption.

Fraud, embezzlement and impunity within PDVSA became so excessive in the years Rafael Ramírez led the company that opposition legislators protested loudly in 2016 at the empty national treasury amid a prolonged exchange rate crisis. The chavistas closed ranks, denied everything, blocked investigations and eviscerated legislative functions, leading to the widespread public protests of 2017.

Ramírez was shuffled to a new post as Venezuela’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. He resigned after three years and remained abroad as an exile. Almost six years later, Venezuelan prosecutors have charged him formally.

Piero Trepiccione, a political scientist with Centro Gumilla, a center for research and social action run by the Society of Jesus in Venezuela, said, “This internal process is happening because Venezuela’s revenues can barely cover the country’s needs. Maduro needs resources to get reelected. Faced with low approval rates and unpopularity, he is digging in and reshaping his regime to consolidate power.”

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