The storm that stroke the country a night of August 23rd, 2005 is remembered by many as the most violent of all times. Ten Uruguayans died defenseless before 200 km/hr. winds that destroyed store canopies, trees, cars and even houses. The soccer fanatics also remember that night because it put an end to the old electronic board of Tribune Colombes of Centennial Stadium. After 25 years, it laid broken at Batlle Park.
It was necessary to wait for three years and almost four months so the stadium, which is a monument to national soccer and headquarter of the Uruguayan selection to have a new board. Unlike the previous one, it had colors and worked like a real giant next-generation TV, it allowed to see the game live, goals and repetitions. Its installation had a cost of USD $600.000 and was donated by the Venezuelan government, which happened after the Copa América held in that country in 2007.
It was a minimum part of the great solidarity shown by Hugo Chávez with Uruguay. Not just by chance former president José Mujica defined him as “the most generous governor”. The relation started with the impulse of the late president. It involved millionaire deals that included extensive chapters of oil sales in very accessible conditions for Uruguay, generous exports to the Caribbean country with a type of preferential exchange, and the recovery of bankrupted companies.
With the rise of businesses, the denounces multiplied due to the discretional choosing of companies that got contracts with Venezuelan public companies and, later, for non honored debts with resources that seemed to disperse. The action of intermediaries for contacts with the Venezuelan government gave origin to judicial cases that were discarded by Uruguayan prosecutors with the allegation that the authorities from Venezuela were the last responsible for the decisions made about business.
Beyond the official agreements, under the table contracts were made to offer discreet havens to capitals. A son of an Uruguayan former president used the services of Mossack Fonseca, the Panama Papers’ firm, to open offshore companies in a failed intend to receive commissions for rendered services before companies that commercialized with the Venezuelan government. An Uruguayan banker was accused by an United States Prosecutor of offering to a group of Venezuelans a network to launder money from one of the largest defalcations made against the State Oil Company (PDVSA).
The frame was documented for Chavismo INC., an investigation made in alliance with Transparencia Venezuela, the Latin American Platform of Journalism CONNECTAS and the Rebel Alliance Investigates (ARI), in which participated journalists and investigators from Venezuela, United States, Spain, Argentina, Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Dominican Republic. From the process it was generated a data base with information of all the judicial, executive and parliamentary processes related to persons and institutions that had contact with Venezuelan public resources in the last two decades around the world.
A gear stands out among all the money circulation routes in Uruguay: the local filial of Banco Nacional de Desarrollo Económico y Social de Venezuela (Bandes), that has been key to political and economic binational bonds. In the last years, the Venezuelan institution and its subsidiary have been under the scrutiny of the Department of Treasury of United States, which first applied sanctions to members of its directory and then to the institution for considering it vehicles for corruption. The measurements have been rejected by Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, who considers it an intent to undermine him.
A tempestuous file
Bandes headquarters was founded in Venezuela, in 2001, when Chávez had two years in power. The institution soon gained reputation due to its links with corruption cases. The bank’s Finances former vice-president, María de los Ángeles González was condemned in USA for conspiring to create a network of money laundering in 2009. Four years later, Maduro admitted that bank officials had embezzled more than USD $ 85 million to the Chinese – Venezuelan fund, which was handled by the institution and received loan contributions from the Asian nation to impulse development projects.
Bandes arrived to Uruguay in 2006 by purchasing the assets portfolio and liabilities of Cofac cooperative, the last financial institution victim of the Uruguayan economic crisis of 2002. It affected greatly the banking system of that country. Since then, the magnifying glass over their operations has remained there. Initially, by the management of trusts funds to promote binational businesses, and more recently, by fluctuations of its funds in the context of north American sanctions, which are not ratified by international organisms nor apply in Uruguay, but that affect the institution.
In February 2019, a month after Juan Guaidó was elected as president in charge of Venezuela by the National Assembly, Carlos Paparoni, Venezuelan opposition deputy assured that a transference of USD $1.200 million for Maduro’s government was successfully frustrated thanks to diplomatic managements. The money, according to what he said during a parliamentary session, would be moved by officials of the Lisbon Embassy and would arrive to Bandes Uruguay and the Bank of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay from Novo Banco, heir of the extinct Banco Espírito Santo, also linked to chavista financial operations.
On February 21st, president of Banco Central del Uruguay (BCU), Alberto Graña, denied that the operation ever existed during a visit to the Special Commission with Legislative Purposes of Transparency, Fight against Money Laundering and Organized Crime of the Representatives Chamber. “The way to know if that actually happened is through bank transference messages, the swift messages. No swift message arrived at any moment to BCU”, affirmed in the same line of the response of Maduro’s government.
It the session, another data slipped, less appealing but supported by the authorities of Banco Central: the duplication of deposits of nonresident in Uruguay since 2018, an information that had been published by diary El Observador on February 07th. The bank’s public advisor, Juan Pedro Cantera, confirmed that the raise had been from 53 to 96 million dollars, mainly in accounts from legal persons of public and private entities.
Cantera attributed the leap to the effect of the published lists by the United States with names of possible infringers to local laws against money laundering. In July 2017, for example, the then bank president Simón Zerpa Delgado, one of the key cards of Maduro’s finance team was sanctioned by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department. In words of a BCU director, measures like those surely generated the “need to increase its financial traffic to Maduro’s government with Uruguay” to supply the fact that they could not do it through United States anymore, due to correspondent banks had stopped providing services due to the sanctions.
In March 2019, the OFAC announced the suspension of Bandes license in USA. The decision affected the “four additional financial institutions controlled or owned by Bandes”, among them the Uruguayan branch and Prodem, subsidiary in Bolivia. On the communication in which Steven T. Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, announced the measure, was remembered the episode that the BCU authorities denied: “Maduro tried to move more than USD $1.000 million to Venezuela through Bandes to its branch in Uruguay”.
The sanctions made it impossible to carry out transactions abroad through the institution, a factor that can explain the downward in deposits happened in Bandes Uruguay since 2019, said leaders of the banking guild for this work. ¿How did evolve the money flow since that year? For April 2020, according to reports from BCU, the deposits of nonresidents in foreign currency had collapsed to about USD $46 million, the lowest level in many years.
In its moment, Bandes announced that their local operations would continue with the greatest normality. Today, in the banking guild there is satisfaction that it continues to function, that there has not been a banking bullfight and that around 200 workers keep their jobs. Xabier Anchustegui, another key card of Maduro in the handling of finances, is leading the institution in Uruguay and in Venezuela.
The bank has continued to receive north American accusations: the last one attributes the head office of the company of having facilitated gold sales through the businessman of Colombian origin Álex Saab, to whom Maduro identifies as official agent, but who is accused of leading a network to launder money. For this work, a questionnaire was sent to the headquarters of Bandes in Caracas, which was not answered by the end of this edition.
Beyond initials plans
When Bandes Uruguay branch was launched, the president of the institution then, Edgar Hernández Behrens, retired military officer who accompanied Chávez during the attempted coup in 1992, said which were the plans: “the strategy in Venezuela that we want to apply here is to address with priority small entrepreneurs, small and medium industry and most of all, the productive, agricultural, industrial, services and tourism sectors”.
In facts, the institution went far beyond. The new bank would become the main payment channel for the first round of commercial agreements, which both countries concretized and ended up being investigated by justice. The first example of it was the institution’s role on the Bolívar Artigas Fund, a trust fund which creation was signed a year after the bank’s opening by governments of both countries. That trust fund would be financed with part of the money from oil purchase to Venezuela, through 12% of Ancap payments – the Uruguayan state oil company – to Pdvsa. That capital would be deposited in two bank accounts, one of them in Bandes, and it would be destined to finance a future interchange of goods and services with Uruguay. Pdvsa was financing 75% of the crude oil supply to 90 days while the other 25% was paid to 15 years with an interest of 2% yearly, similar conditions to the offered to other central American and Caribbean nations by Chávez.
The created fund was used to invest in projects and institutions of Uruguay, according to a series of agreements signed during a Chávez’s visit to Montevideo in December 2005. The weekly Brecha in 2007 described the Venezuelan investments: USD $10 million to the Clinic Hospital, 7 million for the purchase in advance of ethanol to what ended up being Alcoholes del Uruguay, a subsidiary of Ancap and 10 million for UTE, the electric energy monopoly company of Uruguay. Also, the Uruguayan exports to Venezuela were financed: USD $2,1 million in medicines, 59 million in informatic technology, 6,2 million in beef cattle and 46 million in prefabricated houses. From there also came up a financial contribution of USD $5 million to solve bankrupted companies and were then “recovered” and self-managed by their workers. According to the weekly, that year there were projects for USD $276 million and USD $137 million had already been executed, but some of the businesses had already generated “corruption” episodes that forced their suspension.
Those alleged episodes led the then deputy of Colorado Party, Washington Abdala, to start a criminal denounce, in 2008
Based on an article published by Brecha, Abdala sustained that the fund had been “distorted”, because in it predominated the private companies’ businesses. “As long as it was obtained the authorization from the State organism and the payment order from Pdvsa, it was possible to knot businesses without the need to tender, with a quick access to money, exempt from taxes and marginally to controls on currency management that prevail in Venezuela”, cited the deputy in the article, to consign later that “In Venezuela who decides the purchase of products is the State, it means only from there businesses can be concretized”.
Specifically, the demand pointed that three private companies were being financed by 90% of funds from trust fund accounts, and one of them involved the son of Tabaré Vázquez, the President at that time, Javier Vázquez. The firm assinsted by him, Artech, sold Genexus technology to Corporación Venezolana de Guayana-Telecom for USD $59 million.
The others two linked the sale of pregnant cows and prefabricated houses. Both businesses had Norberto Barcos as manager in Venezuela, who according to what Abdala said based on press releases, “counted on a good entry to the Venezuelan government, for which he was able to impulse both businesses, so different between each other”. At the same time, the sale of prefabricated houses ended up being questioned by the Venezuelan Comptroller due to failures on its execution. He was in charge of a company denominated Umissa, pointed by the Uruguayan Federation of Housing Cooperatives for Mutual Help of Uruguay for being linked to Guido Antonini Wilson. At the end of the denounce, Abdala affirmed: “businesses and agreements generally concretized with Venezuela – allegedly – are done without explanations and without the basic tender mechanisms imposed by the laws”.
His judicial resource did not go to safe port. In the last days of the first Vásquez mandate, in February 2010, the criminal judge of 3rd. Turn, Sergio Torres, gave rise to the request of file from Prosecutor Juan Gómez and closed the case. According to consignment by La República diary at that time, and based on Gómez judgement, from the “simple” reading of the fund trust creation document “must be concluded with no doubt that the Uruguayan government has had or had nothing to do with the administration and functioning of the Bolívar-Artigas fund”. This put aside “all possibility of influence traffic regarding the operation of that fund, as it is not possible to verify decisive influence on an Uruguayan public official, both to delay or omit an act or to execute it contrary to law”, said Gómez. He also stated that Javier Vázquez advisory “to companies that sold equipments and services to organisms and state companies from Venezuela can be inscribed within his regular professional activity, that has been fulfilling for many years before his father’s assumption as President of the Republic”, for which it is not possible to credit that “He has taken any advantage due to his parentage relationship, nor has he used state agencies to provide professional services to private companies, with which he has worked since times long before 2005”.
As result of the Panama Papers, the weekly Busqueda published in 2016 that Javier Vázquez had opened two offshore companies with intermediation of two employees through Mossack Fonseca study in 2009: Conibel SA, inscribed in the British Virgin Islands and Davidson Global Inc, in Panama. According to what Vázquez himself said to that media, he created them to develop two foreign projects, but those never materialized, and the societies were never active.
Two years later, the same weekly published – based on the analysis of a judicial file, of public registry information and documents from the Panamanian lawyer’s office Mossack & Fonseca linked to German diary Süddeutsche Zeitung–that those accounts would receive money from the companies advised by Vázquez in businesses with Venezuela. Nonetheless, between two and five money transferences of up to USD $300.000 that he expected to receive, never actually arrive.
In parallel, the Bolívar Artigas fund was under–financed through the years. For 2013 the fund barely counted on USD $943.000, when, a year before had USD $27,4 million. In the bank financial statements of the following years, made by independent auditors, the trust fund data did not appear anymore.
Venezuela’s right to take their own decisions was what dismantled the main arguments of a new criminal complaint filed in 2017 by the deceased nationalist deputy Jaime Trobo. The late legislator requested, first to the Parliament and then to justice, to issue (among other things) about a series of agreements made in 2011 by the Caribbean country and the Uruguayan government, which was already in hands of José Mujica.
Those agreements implied that a series of private Uruguayan actors negotiate directly with public organisms from Venezuela without having any selection process ruling, for which, according to Trobo they were benefitted from the agreements.
This way, the Uruguayan private company Aire Fresco, transformed in the focus of the criminal demand made by Trobo with other legislators. The two signature holders were linked to the political sector of Mujica, the Movement of Popular Participation and even contributed to the financing of his electoral campaign for less than USD $20.000. Aire Fresco had signed agreements with the Ministry of People’s Power for Food and with Suministros Venezolanos Industriales CA (Suvinca). The agreements implied to study the “viability” of an export from Uruguay to Venezuela of chicken, wheat and rice, and the creation of a “mixed” commercial company, to materialize the importation, exportation and representation” of “purchase and sell of products, goods and services associated, to attend the requirements of diverse entities public and private in both countries”.
On the parliamentary denounce, Trobo also highlighted that the company Atlansur signed an agreement along with the Venezuelan Corporation of Foods, to advance on the installation of two facilities for “reception, collection, mix and production of balanced food for animal rations” on the cities of Nueva Palmira (Uruguay) and Puerto Cabello (Venezuela). The Uruguayan firm Urutransfor did the same thing with the Ministry of Electric Energy, to “evaluate the possibility to develop projects in the electric sector in Venezuela, linked to the transference of technology in the manufacturing and maintenance of eight power transformers through training, capacitation, technique and giving courses and internships”. Besides, the agreement stablished that Uruguay could offer “consulting” with electric transformers, and that there could be an “exchange of experiences in the labor management of the company Urutransfor”. The rest of the agreements were signed in its majority by the Venezuelan Chancellor then Nicolás Maduro and his Uruguayan pair, Luis Amagro, today in irreconcilable political positions, one as Governor and the other as General Secretary of the American States Organization.
On the denounce, first presented before the Uruguayan Parliament and then justice, Trobo was wondering who designated those companies to sign as counterpart of the Venezuelan state companies” and “with what procedures were selected”
The denounce was extended by the then Senator of the Independent Party, Pablo Mieres, after proving that Aire Fresco was intermediary in a new agreement between Uruguay and Venezuela announced in June 2015 by the already president Tabaré Vázquez.
Mieres denounced that Aire Fresco charged commissions of USD $182.000 from the trust fund created for the agreement. In his judgement, did not correspond to Aire Fresco to charge as intermediary when “it was an agreement from State to State and the trust fund was used to pay the pending credits to the Uruguayan companies that sold to Venezuela”. “what role can play an intermediary company if it is an agreement from government to government?”, he asked himself then, in declarations to the newspaper El País.
Over the years, this agreement will end being a headache for the Uruguayan government, due to problems a lot more complicated than intermediation of Aire Fresco. In theory, the pact seemed like a clear business to Uruguay: it implied the cancellation of the debt that Ancap had with Pdvsa for USD 430 million, in a payment plan of USD $267 million. The scheme, again, also had a similar format to the Bolívar Artigas fund with Bandes as main actor: Venezuela would deposit the money received in a trust fund on the Uruguayan branch of the bank so the Uruguayan producers had the “immediate payment” guaranteed by sales of 265.000 tons of food, which was also agreed, besides the cancellation of previous debts that the country had, mainly with Uruguayan dairy companies.
But the agreement had two problems. First, when Ancap went to pay the debt money, by request of Pdvsa, did not deposit on the Bandes Uruguay trust fund, but in China City Bank, which generated suspicions in producers and opposition legislators. Second: many producers were never able to collect the money, especially in the dairy industry after Maduro’s government declared an “economic emergency” in 2016 and entered in payment cessation.
The Uruguayan chancellor at that time, Rodolfo Nin Novoa justified the payment to the Chinese bank before the Chamber of Representatives of International Affairs in September 2019: “when the payment is done, Venezuela says where it wants the money to be deposited. Is not that the Uruguayan government deposits it wherever they want, but they have to ask “where do we deposit the money?”, versus what they said “deposit it that bank”.
Nin Novoa also confessed that the problem is that Venezuela “stopped accomplishing the chronogram” of agreed payments. The last deposit, explained, was at the end of 2018 and in euros, given the restrictions of that country to use dollars due to sanctions imposed by United States. Although he refers as positive the fact that the Venezuelan government admitted that there was a debt (even when he specified seeing shades regarding its volume). He also pointed that since the last payment “it was impossible to stablish a dialogue”, about the debt, “There were no more conversations, opinions or measures from the Venezuelan government”, explained.
The wall og Justice
The agreement finished with threats of demands from the dairy sector against the Venezuelan state. Producers still claim a debt of USD $30 million. The demand did not materialize, and producers still wait for a signal from the new government of Uruguay, which has a totally evasive relation with Venezuela. Even the current Minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fishing, Carlos María Uriarte, expressed his opinion before taking office in March this year that the debt should be “assumed among all”. The president of the National Association of Milk Producers, Walter Frich, explained for this work that for producers is better to “keep waiting, politically”. A recent judicial action applied in Montevideo pursued the seizure of shares from Bandes to guarantee the payment of a debt to a laboratory that exported to Venezuela.
Despite the extension of the judicial denounce presented in 2017 and extended in several opportunities, the Prosecutor practically left on the road almost all accusations from Trobo, Mieres and the rest of the plaintiff, in some points, for understanding that the accusation overcame the competences of the local laws.
Prosecutor Luis Pacheco ruled out all the crimes related to Aire Fresco. Regarding his control as intermediary, Pacheco explained that from the declaration of businessmen who testified “It is clear that they freely decided to do the business concretely with Aire Fresco for placing their products in the Venezuelan Market, because this (…) enabled the placement of local production abroad”.
But also, Pacheco filed the denounce about the selection of Aire Fresco in the agreements of 2011, since, affirmed, it was about a decision of the Venezuelan public companies, for which exceeded the Uruguayan Justice to judge it. “Aire Fresco SA was not selected by the Uruguayan State but by the Venezuelan state companies, so therefore, the accounting and financial administration State regulations are not applicable, nor is perceptive the requirement of competitive procedure”, explained in his judgement.
The same happened with the denounce of Bolívar Artigas Fund, the Uruguayan judicial system argued again that he ran into the same limit: the autonomy of Venezuela.
Along with the Aire Fresco case hitting again with the local justice, in other parts of the world prospered judicial cases linked to money from Venezuela who had Uruguayan as main figures.
Marcelo Gutiérrez Acosta y Lara, entitled of the “first bank with 100% Uruguayan capitals” operating in the United States (Vestin Bank), was accused by the Prosecutor of that country in 2018 for an operation of money laundering linked to Pdvsa and denominated Money Flight.
His capture order was emitted on September 27th, 2018. According to this Organism, it was a scheme of currency exchange to deviate nearly USD $600 million from the Venezuelan oil company: the company requested loans in bolivars that were returned then in dollars to a preferential rate. In that way, for example, in 2014 he received 7.200 million bolivars and instead of paying USD $39.510.508 dollars, the Venezuelan state company paid 600.000.000, as summarized by Transparencia Venezuela.
Gutiérrez Acosta and Lara stood out on the request by the South Florida district Prosecutor Ediwn Torres as a money laundering enabler, according to the file. In this, it is possible to see how other accused relate that he offered his services in an “explicit and imprudent” way. It also points his association with Gustavo Adolfo Hernández Frieri, who qualifies him as a professional money launderer through his financial firms. Gutiérrez’s lawyer, Acosta and Lara has denied the responsibility of his client and has affirmed that his innocence will be demonstrated.