Skip to comments.Corruption threatens Venezuelan president's future-wave of national disgust
Posted on 02/04/2002 4:59:27 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
Hugo Chavez was elected to be a reformer. But on his watch, it seems a dirty government has only gotten dirtier
CARACAS, Venezuela -- After two decades as a civil servant in Venezuela's Ministry of Defense, Jose Navarro finally summoned the courage to blow the whistle.
Inspired by the election of President Hugo Chavez, who had campaigned on an anticorruption ticket, Navarro thought he was doing the right thing.
In a detailed memo to his boss, he questioned rampant embezzlement of funds by senior officers, as well as financial irregularities in the armed forces pension fund.
But instead of being rewarded for his honesty, he was summarily fired.
"I voted for Chavez and now I feel tricked," said Navarro, 43, who lost his job as a midlevel human resources manager in March. "I thought they were going to build a new Venezuela. Instead they humiliated me."
Three years after Chavez was elected on a wave of national disgust with Venezuela's corrupt political system, the president could now be in danger of being swept away by that same tide of popular outrage.
Not only has the former paratroop commander failed to rein in the country's corrupt old practices, his government is setting new records in misappropriation and waste of public funds, according to public officials and opposition critics.
A Central Bank report published this month found that public services are deteriorating because of increased government corruption. Mounting evidence of malfeasance at the highest levels has led to recent calls for the president's removal from office.
While the accusations cover a number of government offices, the most serious charges are aimed at the country's military brass, some of whom have been assigned top posts in Chavez's administration.
Although the government has consistently played down the allegations, claiming they are part of a conspiracy to undermine Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution," they apparently have at least one high-level victim.
Gen. Victor Cruz Weffer, head of the army, was removed from his post unexpectedly just before Christmas. The government denied any connection to corruption. However, the press was excluded from the ceremony to appoint his successor.
An officer with a previously high reputation, Cruz Weffer saw his public image slip after he was put in charge of the Plan Bolivar 2000 -- Chavez's plan to involve the military in public works and social projects -- and later of a public housing program.
"I don't like the public tendering process (for contracts)," he famously declared. "The tenders are always won by construction mafias composed of four or five companies." He much prefered to designate his contractors in private, without submitting their bids to open competition.
Plan Bolivar 2000 swallowed up roughly $100-million in its first year, according to the then comptroller-general, Eduardo Roche Lander. And much of that money -- no one can say exactly how much -- is unaccounted for.
Roche investigated four of the 23 garrisons involved, and found irregularities in every case. There was nothing very sophisticated about the techniques. "In some cases the supplier firms said (the military) bought books of receipts from them," he said. "On one receipt, made out for a million bolivars (about $1,400), they added a nought and made it 10-million."
Some of the firms, like El Surtidor Vidal in the eastern city of Maturin, simply didn't exist. Fifty-seven receipts, totalling over $200,000, supposedly represented purchases from the imaginary supplier. Other businesses were not what the books said they were. "There was an 'ironmongers' in Caracas our investigators visited," said Roche, "which turned out to be a bakery."
One of the classic techniques for "disappearing" the money, according to Roche, was to have suppliers produce invoices that hugely inflated the cost of goods provided. Suppliers would also be asked to endorse official payment checks. A sergeant would then be sent to the bank to change them for cash, while senior officers would pocket the difference, Roche found.
Some suppliers have said they were told they would not get the business unless they played along.
The president, Roche says, did not like his handling of the investigation. "We had serious confrontations," he recalls, "both in private and publicly." When it came time for a new comptroller to be appointed by an interim parliament, dominated by Chavez supporters, Roche stood little chance. He was replaced by a more compliant public servant -- the current holder of the office, Clodosbaldo Rusian.
But the scandal has only intensified after four female journalists began publishing their revelations, citing what they say are military documents leaked by officers unhappy at the way Chavez is handling the armed forces.
"Patience has run out among officials who have witnessed the impunity of a privileged group of military and the double talk of a president who swore to combat corruption," said one of the reporters, Ibeyise Pacheco.
Officially, a Venezuelan general earns less than $1,500 a month. But successive governments have found ways of boosting the salaries of senior officers without generating much paperwork.
Critics claim that the current government has outdone its predecessors.
"If you knew where these people lived before," Pacheco said, " ... tiny, rented apartments and modest cars. ... But now they live in mansions."
Besides the accusations of corruption, Chavez's ruling party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), is accused of spending public funds for partisan political purposes.
During a visit to Bolivia for a meeting of Andean heads of state, media reports accused Chavez of ordering Venezuelan diplomats to hire a crowd of fans to receive him when he arrived at the airport.
Opponents of the government openly deride the MVR party initials as standing for "Made Very Rich," and Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution as "rob-olution."
Chavez rejects allegations of official corruption in an almost off-hand manner. In a recent speech to Congress he professed to his personal integrity by describing how he opened his wardrobe one day and discovered, to his surprise and anger, that he owned a large number of suits.
Chavez didn't say what he did with the unwanted attire.
But the allegations are growing harder to ignore. Last week, the opposition Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) presented a case before the public prosecutor's office to have Chavez dismissed on constitutional grounds. The lawsuit accuses the president of using public funds to finance his political movement and using the armed forces to implement a partisan agenda.
"We need an investigation ... to see how much money has been spent on these political programs," MAS Secretary-General Leopoldo Puchi told journalists outside the public prosecutor's office.
"Other abuses include the incitement to violence, which is punishable under our laws, repeated threats against the media, and neglect in prosecuting corruption," said Puchi, who served as Chavez's labor minister in 1999.
Once seemingly invincible, Chavez's presidency is looking increasingly vulnerable, analysts say. The president's approval rating has fallen precipitously in recent months over a perceived failure to combat poverty and create jobs despite Venezuela's enviable position as the world's fourth-largest exporter of oil.
Last week, more than 100,000 people demonstrated against him in Caracas. That followed a general strike in December, which virtually paralyzed the nation in protest over a package of controversial laws.
Now Chavez's once commanding majority in the National Assembly is eroding fast. A series of increasingly rash and autocratic steps has steadily alienated his former political allies.
The resignation last week of interior minister and veteran political operator Luis Miquilena, 83, is seen as the most serious blow so far.
Miquilena's departure has not only deprived the government of its sole senior member with credibility among the opposition, it has further stirred the unrest in the armed forces.
Miquilena was seen as the president's key mentor, helping him build a political career from the ashes of a failed 1992 military coup, which Chavez led. His replacement, a retired Navy captain, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, was previously Chavez's liaison with left-wing guerrillas in neighboring Colombia, a relationship that has many in the military seriously concerned.
But it is corruption that remains Chavez's Achilles' heel, according to Navarro, the fired defense ministry employee.
"There's always been corruption," he said. "Everyone got their share of it. But now they are fighting over it because the military have taken over so many public institutions."
Besides their official jobs, Navarro said, many senior officers run private companies on the side.
Within his own ministry, Navarro described how he uncovered a fraudulent scheme in the personnel department whereby fake per diems were paid out for false trips by phantom members of staff. The proceeds were divided among senior officers.
According to his official letter of dismissal, he violated office procedures by "failing to exhaust the proper channels" before making his accusations public.
When he took his complaints to the then defense minister, he was told to stop being a nuisance.
Navarro is now suing the government. He attends anti-Chavez rallies carrying a large sign covered with documents testifying to official corruption.
"I thought he would stop corruption, which everyone knows is the worst scourge of our country," he said. "Instead every day the corruption gets worse." -- St. Petersburg Times correspondent Phil Gunson is based in Caracas. David Adams may be reached at: email@example.com.
Back in the early sixties, one dollar was bought with 3.30 bolivares! So a million bolivares would cost $330,000 US dollars.
Just another flim-flam man? This one has oil and has been methodically taking power
while he's espouses anti-American sentiments and sides with the likes of Castro .
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