For all his anti-U.S. rhetoric, Hugo Chávez and his followers have made quite a habit of spending time (and money) in U.S. cities like Miami.
By CASTO OCANDO
Channel: Latin American Affairs
The following is an excerpt from Casto Ocando’s upcoming book Chavistas in the U.S.
Chavistas of all shapes and sizes, from President Hugo Chávez to ministers, magistrates, and down, have had a love-hate relationship with the United States — especially with Miami — since before the Bolivarian revolution came to power in February 1999.
During the 1998 presidential campaign, Chávez complained that he was not allowed to travel to Miami to hold a televised debate with then-contender Claudio Fermín, in a TV studio in Hialeah. The visa was not granted because the State Department in Washington kept Chávez blacklisted for his involvement in the 1992 coup d’etat.
It was not the first time Chávez had asked for a U.S. visa. In 1996, two years after receiving the presidential pardon from Rafael Caldera, the Lt. Col. applied on his own for a tourist visa, which was denied outright.
Chávez was finally able to visit the U.S. for the first time in early 1999, before taking office. His primary interest when he visited New York and Washington was to calm the unrest unleashed by his hidden intentions. According to reports, he was astonished to have met with the powers that be, including the heirs of such famous tycoons as Rockefeller and Hearst.
Chávez’s visit was only the first of a long list of Venezuelan revolutionary travelers taking delight in a way of life they publicly despised, but privately embraced.
Personalities such as former Attorney General Isaías Rodriguez and the current governor of Anzoategui — and “poet of the revolution” — Tarek William Saab, used to travel to Miami in the early 00s to defend the good faith of Chávez’s project.
Later on, Rodriguez would accuse Venezuelan residents in Miami of conspiring to assassinate the late public prosecutor Danilo Anderson, relying on evidence that eventually proved to be false.
As of Saab, he was stripped of his visa in 2002 after revelations surfaced that he met in Madrid with radical Islamic groups labeled as terrorists by the U.S.
In 2004, the then-president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), Jorge Rodriguez, a prominent leftist that later became Venezuela’s Vice President, was discovered in an exclusive resort in Boca Raton, enjoying massages and VIP attention paid by electronic elections firm Smartmatic, with which CNE had previously signed a $100 million contract to organize the August 2004 recall referendum. At the time he was heavily criticized for what appeared to be an open conflict of interest.
The following year, in May 2005, senior magistrates of the Supreme Court, including the current president, Luisa Estela Morales, convened a press conference “to categorically reject” the cancellation of the American visa of the president’s court, Omar Mora.
The magistrate, who used to travel as a tourist to the very heart of the empire, tore his clothes because the U.S. Embassy in Caracas sent an email to all foreign and Venezuelan airlines to inform them that his visa had been cancelled.
“It has affected the dignity of the Venezuelan Judicial Power,” said the judge in a statement. “For if I would have needed to travel and they wouldn’t have let me board the plane, it was going to be an affront to the country,” said Mora.
At that time, the purchasing office of the Armed Forces of Venezuela, located four blocks from Walmart, in the city of Doral (or as it is known by many, “Doralzuela”), northwest of Miami, was an eloquent example of the chavistas’ taste for the American Way of Life.
C-130 Hercules aircrafts of the Venezuelan Air Force travelled every week from the Miami International Airport to the Palo Negro Air Force base, in Maracay, central Venezuela, fully-loaded with all kinds of products of the capitalismo salvaje, many of them to supply and entertain the higher ranks of the chavista military.
Although these flights ended in 2006 when Washington banned trade with Venezuela’s military, many of them managed to continue enjoying the benefits of the cursed empire.
A group of military officers, aided by a wealthy businessman who was well-connected within the Chávez government, acquired at least a dozen apartments in an exclusive area of Coral Gables.
“Everyone is trying to secure its future in case the chavista revolution fails,” a person familiar with the property deals told me at the time.
Also in 2006, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro’s shopping trip to South Florida was to be postponed after being detained by immigration officials at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The arrest, denounced by Maduro as a violation of diplomatic rules, came after the minister took out a thick bundle of cash to purchase three first class tickets to Miami at the American Airlines counter. The wad of cash alarmed the airline employees and the federal authorities. Maduro was detained for half an hour and then released after efforts of United Nations ambassador, Francisco Arias Cardenas. Maduro had to suspend his spending spree in his well-cherished Aventura and Dadeland Malls and departed directly to Caracas, where he was received by his frustrated spouse, Congresswoman Cilia Flores, president of the National Assembly, and a big fan of shopping in Miami.
Five days before this episode, on September 21, 2006, President Chavez had characterized U.S. president George W. Bush as “a devil, a liar, and imperialist dictator,” in a now famous (or infamous) address to the United Nations.
Even relatives of anti-American former Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, did not hesitated to settle in Uncle Sam’s paradise to do business, as his daughter-in-law Gabriela Chacón, a fashion designer who until recently operated a shop in exclusive Coconut Grove.
From financial officers to public prosecutors, to ministers and even blood relatives of the Venezuelan president, they have not hidden their obsession with the virtues of Miami.
Chavistas have been caught in Miami, not only spending lots of money on properties and high-end goods, but extorting and spying.
General Henry Rangel Silva, the new Venezuelan Defense Minister and a prominent member of the Venezuelan nationals list designated as kingpins by the Department of the Treasury, was tapped by the FBI while discussing ways to cover a scandalous espionage episode in 2007.
Venezuelan financial officer Rafael Ramos de la Rosa was closely followed by federal agents in Miami while extorting several Venezuelan businessmen in South Florida in 2010. He finally was apprehended with a $750,000 check in his pocket and sentenced to 27 months of prison.
Several of Ramos de la Rosa’s supervisors have been tracked while in Miami living la vida loca. One of them spent last Christmas in luxurious locations in South Beach, Orlando, and Vail, Colorado, the exclusive winter resort that’s become a favorite destination for the chavista elite.
Perhaps the reason behind the chavistas enchantment with the powerful myth of the American dream is cultural. It is no wonder Venezuelans have been coming to South Florida since the mid 1920s, first in the ancient seaplanes of German-Colombian airline Scadta, and later through Aeropostal and Viasa airline.
But of no less importance is the economic reason.
Despite the anti-imperialist rhetoric, Chávez's government has promoted a more active economic relationship with the U.S. than previous Venezuelan governments.
For instance, for the first grand plan to distribute food at reasonable prices through government-controlled stores in 2008, chavistas could think of no better way to import food than through the purchasing office in Miami of Bariven, a subsidiary of oil conglomerate Pdvsa. The rice and beans that are part of the staple Venezuelan diet came at that time from rice fields in Texas and Arkansas, and black bean crops in Idaho.
In 12 years, the Chávez administration doubled imports from the United States, most of which comes to Venezuela from Miami. According to U.S. Census Bureau trade figures, Venezuela imported $11.24 billion in goods from the U.S., more than double than the $5.35 billion it imported in 1999, when Chávez took office.
From Miami alone, exports to Venezuela were close to $3 billion in 2010. Most U.S. exports to Venezuela departed from the Miami International Airport, a total of $2.19 billion, according to the Miami-Dade Aviation Department. The rest, about $680 million in goods, was shipped through the Port of Miami.
Behind this prosperous economic activity are very powerful economic groups controlled by the Bolivarian Revolution elite, with deeper pockets than anyone else in the country’s recent history.
Chávez’s order to close the Venezuelan consulate in Miami can not be seen but as another episode in this long love-hate relationship that has marked relations with the United States and the flamboyant Chavistas.