Bolivia The best kept diamond of chavismo

The best kept diamond of chavismo

A deputy from Evo Morales party took control of a prosperous agro – export soy business in 2009, thanks to an unusual transaction with a millionaire contribution from Venezuelan public funds. With his management, he helped maintain under the shadows the hand of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro’s government over the valuable company. Distant from Parliament, today there is a judicial process for alleged money laundering linked to the case

A group of officials and ex – officials from Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro and Evo Morales’s governments have controlled during 12 years the biggest soy exporter of Bolivia, Gravetal. The private company, settled in the department of Santa Cruz, is considered an agro – industrial giant in the oilseeds industry, one the most competitive in the international agricultural market. It has sold more than USD $1.800 million in the last decade, including large amounts of row materials to Venezuelan public companies.

On the exporter website it is stated that in 2008 “Bolivian entrepreneurs” bought the company. Nothing is said about the impulse and millionaire resources that branch companies of Oils of Venezuela (Pdvsa), public corporation that then left earnings out of this world for Chávez government, gave to a firm created three weeks before and with a patrimony of less than USD $15.000, to acquire 99 per cent share of the main soy company of Bolivia. That company recently created, denominated Capital Inversoja, was the vehicle that finally allowed a deputy from Evo Morales’s party to take control of Gravetal and dissimulate the Venezuelan intrusion.

Juan Valdivia Almanza, president and majoritarian actionist Gravetal, had not concluded his mandate as deputy of the Socialist Movement (MAS), between 2006 and 2010, when the transaction happened. It formally put him in charge of Gravetal. An old colleague presented a denounce against him before the Public Ministry for crimes that include money laundering and tax fraud in connection with handling of the company Inversoja, which audited balances are filled with irregularities, according to the denouncer, including the importunate declaration of purchase of Gravetal and the concealment of the data in the sworn statement that he presented when finishing his parliamentary function.

Valdivia Almanza has been accompanied by almost a dozen of Venezuelan public officials that, with no accountability to the public, were directives of Gravetal till November 2019. Most of them have been related to the Ministry of Food in Venezuela, an entity that has been controlled mainly by army officers, some of which have been denounced for overprices on importation of food and even sanctioned by USA.

The Venezuelan official who spent a longer time on Gravetal’s directive board was Juan Moisés Lares González. In 2013 he was on the soy company directory and simultaneously functioned in management positions at the Venezuelan state company Lácteos de los Andes, which bought raw materials to the Bolivian company. He was denounced by workers and for that reason he was attributed with a conflict of interests that had to be investigated. Justice did not echo the complaints. Lares González is now head of a company that produces corn flour, an ingredient for arepas in Venezuela.

The previous are part of the findings based on public documents examination and interviews in Bolivia, as part of the collaborative investigation Chavismo INC. made in alliance between Transparencia Venezuela, the Latin American Platform of Journalism CONNECTAS and the Rebel Alliance investigates (ARI). On the project participated journalists located in Venezuela, USA, Spain, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Argentina and Uruguay, who have contributed on building a data base that documented the money flows linked to persons of interest related to Chávez and Maduro’s governments. The data has been based on processing of judicial, executive and parliamentary investigations as the ones that involve Valdivia Almanza.

Ex – presidents Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales consolidated and strategic alliance. | Photo: file Bolivian news Agency.

Gravetal Bussinesses, presented by the company as a private and Bolivian subject, actually took part of the cooperation schemes instituted by Chávez and Morales, and continued by Maduro in the frame of an strategic alliance forged thanks to the political and ideological identity, but sustained also by millions of Venezuelan petrodollars, more than 5.000 million, according to some analysts.

The help not only included financing, outside the Treasury mechanisms, to social programs like “Bolivia changes, Evo complies” or other solidarity plans channeled through the Bolivarian Alternative of Our Latin American People” (ALBA). It also implied the purchase of the private financial fund Prodem, which became one of the largest banks in Bolivia, with a credit portfolio of over USD $1.180 million from the National Development Bank of Venezuela (BANDES), an entity that some officials turned into a corruption scale that has been banned by United States. It also involved failed projects like the production of foods with the Venezuelan Corporation of Food (CVAL) or the intent to transform Bolivia into a petrochemical power through the Petroandina binational.

Valdivia Almanza did not reply the request of interview directed to five of his companies. The requests also came through email to Gravetal and Inversoja, in order to get details of the soy company purchase and the reason of participation in the board of Venezuelan officials. Yimy Montaño, Valdivia Almanza’s lawyer is the only one who was possible to contact for this coverage, he said that the case of his represented is being aired at the competent instances and that he would not make any more comments.

Financial engineering for geopolitics

The purchase negotiations of the Bolivian soy company happened in 2008, in a context in which Morales was affronting a crisis due to an open challenge to his authority from departmental opposition prefects of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando, region known as “the half moon”, which promoted the constitution of autonomous governments.

The oriental business sector of the country also kept a posture against Morales government due to the regulation of exports. Gravetal purchase turned crucial to suffocate the rebellion because it implied the control of the Santa Cruz production sector, the most vigorous of Bolivia, and in particular of the soy producers and oilseed industries that kept an almost dependent relationship with the company.

The soy business is the key on the generation of employment in oriental Bolivia. | Photo: 2017 Gravetal Memory.

To confirm the purchase, however, it was necessary to elaborate a complicated scheme of fund circulation that dissimulated the intervention of Chávez and avoid questionings before the constitutional prohibition establishing that in a range of 50 km inside the frontiers no foreign can have property titles, except in exceptional cases. Gravetal is affected by that regulation due to its location in Puerto Quijarro, on the borderline with Brazil. Its previous owners were led by a businessman that had the Bolivian nationality and the Colombian. At that time, some communication media picked the story up before the possible arrival of Venezuelan public funds.

Inversoja was constituted under that confrontation environment, on June 13th, 2008, with a small capital of 100.000 Bolivianos, equal to USD $13.927. Among its founders, all of them Bolivians, there were two Gravetal shareholders: Jorge Arias Lazcano and Gabriel Pabón Gutiérrez. The other owner was Jorge Toyama Urehara, who acted as accountings sub – manager and member of Gravetal’s directory board. The first had 34% of share and the remaining two had two identical portions of 33%.

With only 18 days of existence, Inversoja bought 99% of Gravetal shares, thanks to a loan from the Venezuelan government. The same day the shares were transferred, those were given, as a guarantee of the debt, to Monómeros International LTD. The company was the last link of a property chain that leads to Venezuelan Pdvsa. It is also a branch of Monómeros Colombo Venezolanos, a subsidiary of Pequiven, which, at the same time, is the petrochemical arm of the Venezuelan oil company.

Monómeros Colombo Venezolanos is a company based in Colombia and it is one of the most important on the fertilizer market of that country. It was acquired by Pdvsa in 2006. Since may last year it is under control of officials designated by deputy Juan Guaidó, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly and acknowledged by that organ and other 50 countries, including Colombia, as interim president of Venezuela.

Inversoja shareholders admitted that they had a debt due to a loan received from Monómeros International LTD, in a directory meeting held on July 24th, 2008, according to the documentation to which Chavismo INC. had access. However, on the session registers, precise data of the amount and transaction details are omitted. On 2013 financial statements, also consulted for this work, it is mentioned a debt by a long term loan and interests equivalent to USD $82.6. million. 2018 financial statements show that the debt jumped to USD $132 million. In no case there is information presented about where the money comes from, how they got it, when or the way it entered.

Carmen Elisa Hernández, president of Monómeros. | Photo: Linkedin.

Before being reimbursed, the Venezuelan loan followed a sinuous route. Although Monómeros International LTD is the formal receiver of Gravetal actions as guarantee, the funds used by Inversoja to purchase come from a branch of Pequiven, denominated International Petrochemical Sales LTD and registered at British Virgin Islands. This company remained active till 2013 and now appears on the data base of Offshore Leaks of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The money did not come up from account statements of Monómeros petty cash, but from Pequiven through another figure” affirmed to Chavismo INC. Carmen Elisa Hernández, designated by Guaidó as President of the actionist board at Monómeros Colombo Venezolanos. She did not give precise amounts but did another affirmation: “the chavistas regime was very clever by creating many figures in countries like Virgin Islands or Panama. Some of these are even inactive because they were subject of Panama Papers leaks”.

Gravetal actions also followed a route through the Venezuelan burocracy that was also kept under the shadows. In documents to which Hernández has had access, there is record that Monómeros Colombo Venezolanos passed its rights with respect to Gravetal to another company that was a Pdvsa branch in 2010: Pdval, a food importer company also marked by corruption scandals and that currently is handled by the Ministry of Food.

Pdval received 99% of Gravetal shares endorsed to the carrier in august 2008 and also assumed the additional expenses originated with the loan to Inversoja. In its name there were also given in guarantee two portions of 0,5% to the name of Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos and the binational oil company Petroandina, according to documents reviewed by Hernández. 

When control was assured, Gravetal became a strategic asset for Chávez and Morales. An example of it was evident in October 2010, when the company was chosen to do the first sale through the Unique System of Regional Compensation (Sucre), an scheme through which ALBA countries tried to stablish, with support of central banks, an space for regional commerce and a common coin. The project eventually shipwrecked among denounces of having served for money laundering and false sales.

However, at that moment Sucre debuted with a live transmission that could be followed from floor 28 of Central Bank of Bolivia at La Paz. It was possible to see Chávez and Morales on giant screen, connected through a satellite signal. Gravetal sold the equivalent to USD 5 million on degummed soybean oil to Industrias Diana, a company nationalized in 2008, in Venezuela. The invited journalists among whom was who writes this story, it was announced that they were in presence of an historic event.

Gravetal exported 230.000 metric tons in the last years. It included crude oil and soy cake, with a value of USD $150.000, mainly to Venezuela and Colombia, according to their institutional memorial. Nowadays, the designated executives by Guaidó affirm that their intention is to rescue the company, as it has been done with other Venezuelan assets in countries were the deputy is recognized as President. That is precisely happening in Bolivia after Morales left power. A written consultation about Gravetal was directed to contact emails of Ministry of Food and Pdval but at the end of the present work there were no responses yet.

A screen with red balance

Valdivia Almanza still functioned as MAS parliamentary by Cochabamba, the same department were Evo Morales has his biggest stronghold of militants, when he became the largest shareholder of Inversoja, in august 2009: 34% of share according to the Ordinary Board of Actionists of the company. With that, he took formal control of Gravetal, in which directory he had been appointed five months before. Now he is the directive president of Gravetal and Inversoja.

Juan Valdivia Almanza, with a blue hat. | Photo: ANF.

He has not been the only person with political links related to businesses. Currently, Katarina Gumucio Stambuk has 33% of Inversoja share and 0,5% of the soy company. She was presidential delegate of Morales, also by Cochabamba and ex – general manager of Abya Yala, Tv channel linked to Juan Evo Morales Ayma foundation (JEMA), built with Iranian resources in Bolivia. She was also requested to comment about this for the present work but there was no answer. Before her, Sebastián Rivero Guzmán, brother of a Morales’s ex – minister was also shareholder of Inversoja and Gravetal.

Inversoja financial statements reveal that the company never increased its value, or improved its position after the acquisition of Gravetal. The numbers were always red. The company only declared earnings of USD $13,2 million in 2013 and USD $3 million in 2018. The whole amount was used for administrative expenses in both cases. That in spite of the fact that Inversoja only counts on a unique occupied official, according to the document of register update consulted for this investigation. At 2018 exercise closure, it had the already mentioned debt of USD $132 million.

Ex – deputy Bernardo Montenegro denounced his former colleague Valdivia Almanza before the Public Ministry, based on documents like memories and public balances presented by Inversoja to Fundempresa, an organization that operates the Commerce Registry of Bolivia: “a great number of irregularities are observed”. The previous parliament questions the fact that Gravetal purchase was barely mentioned on the audit balances five years after consummated when the millionaire loan was recorded and received to acquire the Santa Cruz company. In 2009 Inversoja registered a total patrimony of USD $1.606 and a debt of USD $1.555: barely USD $56 of difference. The numbers did not express the money movements implied on the purchase of the soy company in 2008.

There could have been an impositive fraud to the State”, said an interviewed for this investigation. For Montenegro, that is only a part of a longer list. The complaint attributes Valdivia Almanza the alleged commission of crimes such as illegal enrichment, particulars illegal enrichment with affectation of the State, illegal profit legitimation and false sworn declaration of assets and incomes.

According to his affirmation, his former colleague presented before the General Comptroller of the State a sworn declaration with false information about his assets when finishing his parliamentary exercise. “He declared to have a patrimony of USD $1,1 million, but he omitted Gravetal purchase”. His calculations indicate that he should have declared other USD $24 million. “No matter if mister said that the money came from a loan, the origin of those funds had to be declared”.

It also attracts Montenegro’s attention the fast increasement of Valdivia Almanza’s patrimony, which nowadays registers 15 companies. From 2010 to 2019 he registered seven, despite the negative results from Inversoja. Among the new investments there are a concrete factory, an ice cream factory, an iron product importer, a vehicle agency, a hotel firm and two companies dedicated to bar and restaurant sector.

All of this information and millionaire investments reflects that such citizen has taken advantage of his condition as deputy and MAS leader, besides his proximity to ex-president Morales to mass an uncountable fortune, with resources of questionable origin”, said. The former deputy complained that, past seven months of this denounce, the investigation remained paralyzed. The accused went voluntarily and embraced his right to silence and “regrettably from that point the case did not go forward anymore”.

Afterwards, it was noticed that Valdivia Almanza interposed 2 incidents on the process. The first one was presented on July 13th and in virtue of the request received by the ex – deputy’s defense. Montenegro was taken apart as active part of the case for not being considered a victim or plaintiff. With the second incident, the judge granted Valdivia Almanza the exclusion on the crime of false sworn declaration and only kept illegal enrichment and illegal profit legitimation. Montenegro has manifested his disagreement with both decisions and regrets that the State Prosecutor has not acted over the case yet.

Juan Valdivia Almanza, president of Gravetal directory. | Photo: 2017 Gravetal Memory.

As politician, Valdivia Almanza was a man of few public appearances. It is possible to count the times he was seen next to Evo Morales, such as the 2005 campaign closure. In 2005 he gave his first public interview to a communication media of Santa Cruz, where most of his businesses are located. Before him, his brother had been identified with an entrepreneur profile linked to hotel businesses.

The former deputy, as president of Gravetal has a business relationship with the Venezuelan – Paraguayan multimillionaire Carlos Gill Ramírez, who is actionist of Ferroviaria Oriental, one of transportation providers for the soy company. In an interview with journalist Carlos Valverde, he said that it is the only connection with Valdivia Almanza. The explanation came up because both Montenegro and Óscar Ortiz, former senator and currently part of the government, have pointed that both have a relationship beyond that.  

Ex-deputy Bernardo Montenegro. | Photo: RRSS.

The same Ortíz carried out an investigation from Parliament, but he was not able to demonstrate Gill Ramírez connections with Gravetal. Instead, he did a synthesis of the magnate’s empire in Bolivia that also includes actions in Ferroviaria Andina, La Razón and Extra newspapers, Construction Society Gómez Núñez Bolivia, construction company Terravías and the Port Administration Society Continental. In all those operations he has invested more than USD $320 million in the last nine years. He also received contracts from the teleferic network civil works and military radars from Evo Morales.

Gill Ramírez had a close relationship with the Venezuelan late Julio Montes, who even became an executive of one of his companies. Despite all that, he affirmed that he never leaned on Chávez, Maduro or Morale’s favors. “I am a businessman that does not get into the politic world”, said to Valverde.

The Venezuelans of soy

After Gravetal’s purchase by Inversoja, Venezuelan officials started to figure on key positions at the directories of the Bolivian company. Some of them, on the initial months, shared command positions simultaneously on that company and on Inversoja. From the list, stands out Pedro Lugo Gómez, who became president of Monómeros Colombo Venezolanos.

At Gravetal stands out Juan Moisés Lares González. Among all he was who stayed the longest in directive positions: eight years till November 25th, 2019. He was removed two weeks after Morales’s resignation from Bolivian presidency. In parallel, Lares González did other functions. In 2016, for example, he was designated president of the company Alba Alimentos de Nicaragua S.A. (Albalinisa), a binational company between Nicaragua and Venezuela governments and previously he had been on the managerial team of Lácteos Los Andes.

Lares González leads today a company that produces the brand of corn dough Don Juan in Venezuela. According to what he said on an interview, it is an entrepreneurship of a small scale, supported by equipment bought in China. On the product packing it can be read that the product is made by Cipralba, domiciled in Caracas. Lares González was contacted through the company emails, but those were not answered. It was not possible to contact him through social media either. Cipralba name coincides with the name of a firm founded in Bolivia by other Venezuelan ex – officials who worked for the Bolivian filial CVAL in a food project. The head office was intervened and eliminated by Maduro’s orders in the middle of a general reorganization and denounces of public fund deviation.

Esquilo Pérez Valladares, who was president of CVAL Bolivia, is the president of Cipralba and affirms for this investigation that he does not have any relationship with Lares González company. He says it is a coincidence and that it only exists in name because its constitution could not be completed. He was compelled to do entrepreneurship in Bolivia after being removed from CVAL without recognition of his labor liabilities, said. CVAL Bolivia was in charge of a food production pilot project that failed, he assures, because of lack of support from Caracas.

The same luck had Petroandina, created in 2007 and renewed four years later when Chávez announced payments of USD $1.500 million “to transform Bolivia into a petrochemical world power”. Morales recognized that Petroandina was in trouble in 2016. At the beginning, the oil company, constituted by the association Pdvsa – Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos, was part of the scheme of Gravetal’s acquisition.

When it was created, the Bolivian state assigned Petroandina a dozen of exploration areas. The majority did not provide any results. The oil company failed on the search of commercial volumes of crude and natural gas in two wells at north La Paz and Tarija. Morales was very optimistic about it. After Chávez’s death in March 2013, the oil company entered in a downfall and PDVSA suspended temporarily its exploration investments on new fields. Its functioning license expired in 2018.

Besides Gravetal, the Venezuelan government has a financial arm in Bolivia: Private Financial Fund Prodem. Originally specialized in micro credits, it became a multiple bank, today Banco Prodem. It was founded in Bolivia in 1998. Currently it has 128 agencies and 2.784 workers at national level, almost 300.000 customers and occupies the 11th place on the financial system. Its portfolio is dedicated to small and medium industry.

Bandes acquired 94% of the Bolivian group share in 2008. The operation was criticized by national experts and economists. “By being (State) Venezuelan capital the purchase of Prodem responds to a political line” and “working with micro credits can be used for politic facts”, said to El Mundo newspaper the then president of the Economists College of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Teófilo Caballero.

Same as Gravetal, in its directory there are officials and executives that have exercised or exercise important high positions for Maduro’s administration. Despite being included amongst the sanctioned list from USA government for beign filial of Bandes, Prodem has not suffered admonition from Morales’s government. On the contrary, he pointed that such action “does not affect” its Bolivian filial Prodem. Just like Gravetal, another chavista diamond in Bolivia.

Prodem, one of the largest financial institutions in Bolivia, is controlled by the Venezuelan government. | Photo: Luis Fernando Cantoral.

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