Quico says: It seems like ages ago (and it was), but I remember it vividly. Back in those first few months of ’99, I genuinely was on the fence about Chávez. I was never a supporter, really, but it did seem to me that flying straight into opposition would be a mistake: too many hopes had been invested, too much energy had been amassed. And absolutely everybody could see the country was in dire need of a shakeup. It made no sense to nay-say from the start.
Chávez had run, basically, on an anti-corruption ticket, and this struck me as a source of real hope. Too many old regime figures had stolen too much money with too much impunity, and it seemed to me that there was no way forward until that rancid history was faced squarely and dealt with punitively.
In speech after speech, the young president vehemently echoed this sentiment. So I sat and waited for the trials to begin. I scoured the papers for news of investigations, fantasizing of turning on the news and seeing Carmelo Lauría doing a perp-walk, or footage of David Morales Bello’s house raided by PTJ. It seemed obvious to me that these kinds of images were bound to come sooner rather than later. Chávez kept slamming hard the “40 years of corruption”, and I took it for granted the reality was bound to catch up with the discourse sooner or later. Right?
It was 1999. I was young. There was a lot I didn’t understand. I couldn’t start to wrap my mind around what was really happening, around the possibility that the government could make the gap between discourse and reality permanent, seeing it as an asset rather than a liability.
The investigations never came, of course. And neither did the trials. Some of the perps scurried off to Miami and San José to spend more time with their loot, others were quietly assimilated into the new governing elite.
Towards the end of 1999 it all clicked for me. I grasped clearly for the first time that there would be no trials, that there would be no honest coming-to-terms with the past, because these things were not in the government’s interest. That anti-corruption would remain what it has always been, under Chávez and those who came before him: a slogan, a rhetorical strategy divorced from any serious intent to act and, worse, deployed cynically to cover up one’s own pattern of graft.
Nine years on, the Maletagate Trial in Miami is giving us a detailed look at the absurdum that Chávez’s anti-corruption rhetoric has been reductio’d to. The revolution slowly morphed into a criminal conspiracy, a place where an absolute nullity like Franklin Durán can make a few million dollars on sweetheart deals with the Finance Ministry, buy a major petrochemical firm, become one of the country’s leading industrialists, but continue to make the bulk of his money off of bribes and kickbacks for state contracts, in plain view, and with absolute impunity – until he made the rookie mistake of going to Miami, where his higher-ups can’t protect him. A country where reams upon reams of evidence can build up showing that the head of the state-owned oil company is illegally siphoning off public money to illegally fund foreign election campaigns, all in plain view, without anyone seriously expecting the official to resign, or even to betray any hint of being aware that he’s busted, much less get investigated, prosecuted and thrown in jail where he belongs.
The seeds of today’s debauchery were sown a long time ago. When, in defiance of his own wildly popular rhetoric, Hugo Chávez let the old elite get away with decades of plunder without a single high-profile trial, he not so subtly signalled to his supporters his own lack of seriousness on corruption.
After all, if Chávez wouldn’t go after his political enemies, against people he made a sport of demonizing, who could seriously believe he would go after his allies? Nobody.
And not, certainly, Franklin Durán.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.