Colombia’s Gustavo Petro has been in power for eight months. Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro for a decade. But in the Colombian leftist President’s relatively short time in office, he has visited Venezuelan soil, and the regime leader, four times. The most recent, taking place in Caracas, on Thursday, March 23.
Petro’s visit to Miraflores Palace comes amidst a monumental corruption scandal involving Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), and the sudden resignation of oil minister Tareck El Aissami. El Aissami, who allegedly diverted more than US$3 billion in public revenue from the state-owned petroleum company was a close Maduro ally. The evasion and embezzlement of funds from crude oil sales hidden in cryptocurrencies to evade US sanctions, has resulted in 19 arrests, all close confidants to El Aissami, including Assembly Deputy Hugbel Roa; President of the Criminal Judicial Circuit of Caracas, Cristóbal Cornieles; Joselit Ramírez, Venezuela’s former cryptocurrency regulator; among others.
El Aissami faces a US$10 million bounty for his arrest from US authorities for facilitating drug trafficking from Venezuela.
The US$3 billion is the tip of the financial iceberg in a country crippled by economic mismanagement and the target of sanctions from the United States – and other countries – due to Maduro’s government’s policies. The situation inside Venezuela has become more dire in recent years, with severe shortages of food and medicine leading to widespread poverty and displacement. As a result, Maduro’s grip on power remains strong despite international condemnation of the government’s policies, and rampant human rights abuses.
According to Venezuela’s El Nacional, the country’s Special Anti-Corruption Commission and United States are tracking the money, including banking institutions in Turkey and Lebanon, where El Aissami moved easily due to his parentage. Colombia is also on the list of countries under investigation by US authorities.
An investigative article in EL TIEMPO claims that the Biden administration is making inquiries regarding the project to sell natural gas from Venezuela to Colombia, promoted by the Petro government, and capstone to his “energy transition” agenda. Colombia’s leading daily EL TIEMPO asked the Colombian Ambassador in Caracas, Armando Benedetti, if the US addressed this issue during a meeting on Monday in Washington. “These were confidential conversations,” he stated through a spokesperson.
In a corruption scandal that could quickly take on the regional dimension of another scandal – Odebrecht – and that engulfed foreign governments across Latin America, the presence of Petro, once again, in Venezuela, will no doubt raise questions from lawmakers in both Bogotá and Washington.
With opposition leader Juan Guaido out of the picture, despite more than a dozen foreign government’s recognizing him until recently as the legitimate President of Venezuela, a recent article in the New York Times, titled “Ferraris and Hungry Children: Venezuela’s Socialist vision in Shambles” depicts a nation where moral and socio-economic bankruptcy has taken root. “No internal struggle will get them to wash their hands. They will continue to steal and cling to power, aggravating the daily lives of millions. Not even in a Narcos series was there such impudence,” stated Guaidó in a recent interview with Washington’s The Hill.
Beyond the headline in the NYT of the excesses from those with government contacts – and contracts – to the extreme poverty that has resulted in a diaspora of more than six million Venezuelans displaced across the region, Petro’s repeated handshakes with Maduro extend legitimacy to the last authoritarian leader on the continent.
Official sources will herald the latest Petro – Maduro visit as one that strengthens commercial ties between the two nations and looks to consolidate Venezuela’s role as a peace broker with the National Liberation Army (ELN), despite the Marxist guerrilla not agreeing to a ceasefire under Petro’s “total peace” agenda.
The visit will also be peddled on social media – where much of the Colombian Government’s narrative now takes place – as “constructive”, “cordial” and “brotherly.” Words increasingly ring hollow from a nation where more than 7.7 million inside Venezuela need immediate humanitarian assistance. And above all, words that belittle Colombia’s standing in the region as a democracy, that allowed Petro to be elected. Word is out, however, how the corruption scandal in the most corrupt country in the Americas, and fourth in the world, (according to Transparency International) will spill over a common border.