FBI Wiretaps: Chávez's Venezuela Corrupt as Hell

Well, Transparency International ranks Venezuela the most corrupt nation in the Western Hemisphere. Globally, it ranks just behind Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Not a promising start.

Now an ongoing FBI investigation -- outlined in this week's feature -- threatens to ensnare Tomás Sánchez, the head of the Venezuelan Securities Commission and potential finance minister.

"The feds are looking to go as high up as they can with this investigation," says Bruce Bagley, a political scientist at the University of Miami. "The Chávez administration has hunkered down, worried that there will be accusations against people close to the president."

Our main story focuses primarily on Eligio Cedeño, a rags-to-riches Caracas banker imprisoned by Chávez for three years without conviction before a miraculous escape.

The article also describes the attempts of a Venezuelan official, Rafael Ramos de la Rosa, to extort one of Cedeño's friends, fellow financier Tomás Vásquez.

When the two met at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Brickell Key, Ramos told Vásquez he had to dance to Chávez's tune in order to survive in Venezuela:

Vásquez: Yes, but in the current Chávez anarchy, he's finishing off the country.

Ramos: He's finishing off the country. That's his objective. And he's fulfilling [it].

Vásquez: Of course. And the problem is that sadly, Rafael, people are allowing him to do it.

Ramos: And they're going to continue to do it... You have to play it by ear. You could be a great tango dancer, but if they're playing salsa, you can't do the tango. [You can't say] "Oh, no, we're in Argentina and it's Carlos Gardel's anniversary." No, no, no, right now the orchestra is playing salsa, [so] we have to dance salsa. You have to understand that shit.

Ramos then pressured Vásquez to give him a check for $1.5 million in exchange for avoiding jail time in Venezuela and the chance to regain control of his brokerage firm, Unos Valores, back from government control.

But Ramos wasn't alone in his extortion attempts. He was appointed Uno Valores's auditor by the head of the Venezuelan Securities Commission, Tomás Sánchez, whose name comes up over and over again in the wiretapped conversations.

"Rafael, I don't want you to screw me," Vásquez pleaded with his extortioner at the Mandarin. "[I don't want] Tomás Sánchez to screw me, because Tomás Sánchez has screwed half the planet and he has never given a shit."

"Tomás Sánchez is not going to help anybody," Ramos answered. "I mean, he's not going to contradict what I'll say or what I'll do. But he's not going to help anybody." Later, he added, "You can't discuss money with Tomás... Remember, he's a public person, in a public position. He has his aspirations... They might even appoint him finance minister... He's close to the president. [Current finance minister Jorge] Giordanni is sick. If he retires, perhaps he'll be at the right place at the right time."

At one point during the conversation, Ramos says he will take half of the $1.5 million now and the other half after talking to Sánchez.

Ramos was arrested October 23 and sentenced to 27 months in prison -- with eight already served -- this past July after pleading guilty to extortion and money laundering. The lenient sentence shows he's singing like a canary.

"I was angry when I first heard about his sentence," Vásquez admits. "The judge was lenient... But his children were run out of their jobs. His family has been threatened. And from what I hear, Ramos is cooperating. Who knows? They might even get Sánchez."

Prosecutors won't discuss the case, but Bagley, the political scientist, believes more heads will roll before the investigation is over.

"Seven months is in a sense a slap on the wrist for Ramos," Bagley says. "I suspect that he has spilled his guts and told the feds about all the people involved."

Given Ramos' cooperation, the feds are unlikely to ship him back to Venezuela after he serves his sentence.

"If he were thrown into jail in Venezuela, the chances of him being assassinated, murdered, or given a shiv are very high," Bagley admits. "Organized crime groups linked to the government are in charge... it's like Dante's Fifth Circle of Hell."

Whether or not they indict Sanchez, the feds are breathing down Chávez's neck. And that pressure is getting to his administration, making it lash out at dissidents and political opponents.

"The Chávez regime is under siege," Bagley says. "Chávez himself is ill [with cancer]. Some reports say that he has only a 50 percent chance of surviving 18 months.

"People around him feel that the Bolivarian Revolution is under siege so they are using the

courts, military, police, and Bolivarian militias to place heavy pressure on everybody, from judges whose decisions they don't like to opposition figures," Bagley adds. "For me, the real questions is: Will Chávez survive?"

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