Venezuela is immersed in a political and economic tragedy of catastrophic proportions. As a result of Hugo Chávez’s “21st Century Socialism,” food and other essentials are increasingly scarce, while violence and crime rise exponentially.
The country’s top rulers include people designated as “drug kingpins” by the U.S. Treasury Department, as well as civilians and military officers more interested in acquiring personal wealth than in the administration of civil institutions. It should be no surprise, therefore, that some unscrupulous Venezuelans have made enormous fortunes there recently.
The Venezuelan slur for the beneficiaries of this 21st Century chaos is “ Boliburgueses” or “ Bolichicos.” A rough English translation of the words from the Spanish would be “Boligarchs,” and “Young Boligarchs,” for the new oligarchy that always accompanies revolutions allegedly carried out in the name of the exploited.
In a free economy, like ours, an entrepreneur can accumulate, after much effort and competition, a multimillion-dollar fortune if he or she can create a product or service that people are willing to buy. For example, according to Forbes Magazine, the founder and former CEO of Yahoo, Jerry Yang, has a fortune estimated at $1.2 billion while Aubrey McClendon, co-founder of Chesapeake Energy, the second-largest U.S. natural gas producer, has a fortune estimated at $1.1 billion. No reasonable person in the United States would shun those successful executives and others even more prosperous — for example, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, or the late Apple founder Steve Jobs.
In Chávez’s Venezuela, however, a politically favored group (some with no previous experience in complex sectors such as energy and finance) were able to accumulate, sometimes in four years, fortunes that allow them to purchase luxury mansions in the U.S., extravagant estates in Europe, the costliest private jets and automobiles, exceptional racehorses and more.
The exact amount of the fortunes is impossible to estimate, since they were obtained illegitimately and are being hidden by witting or unwitting bankers, mostly overseas.
How does this affect the United States and why should we care?
Because most of the culprits live in or come regularly to this country. They do not pay U.S. taxes on most of their wealth because they only bring in the “few” millions required to maintain their profligate lifestyles. They use U.S. banks to move money and to maintain their extravagant properties. They are aided by prominent public relations consultants, law firms, “private investigation” agencies and tax specialists that help clean up their image and protect their assets but that also intimidate those who might expose their clients.
To cover their tracks and attempt to enjoy the privilege of living in our country, some Boligarchs have launched lawsuits against honest Venezuelan businessmen in American courts. The purpose is to create a smokescreen to hide behind, and prevent the U.S. government from expelling the real offenders. Accustomed to the arrogance of power in their country, they believe that money trumps the law.
Some of their lawyers send threatening letters to journalists and news outlets, to block negative reports about their clients. Apparently, this is what one does when the major cause of the country’s destruction rests on one’s shoulders.
It is essential to point out that the majority of Venezuelans who have come to our shores seeking refuge are honest victims of the Chavista kleptocracy.
Merely having made money in Venezuela does not make one dishonest.
As for the term “Boligarchs,” Venezuelans refer to those who have wittingly benefited from the looting of their nation, who have amassed fortunes exceeding $1-2 billion, in many cases, from illegitimate awards of government contracts, from kickbacks and other gifts to government officials and from other unethical and immoral activities.
The destruction of Venezuelan society is the result of the Venezuelans’ own actions: Those that for the past 14 years have governed by failed policies based on Marxist ideology and class hatred. Those who did not dare speak out in time against the authoritarianism and thievery of Chávez and his cronies. And those who disregarded any sense of morality and instead exploited the absence of the rule of law to build huge fortunes on the backs of their fellow countrymen.
The United States does not bear the responsibility for the Venezuelan tragedy.
But we would be complicit if we remained silent to the looting, especially when we know where much of the money is, and that many of these looters are today enjoying the peace and security that the rule of law underpins in our country.
The U.S. government must stop providing refuge to Chávez’s business partners in the United States. Federal officials know who they are.
Otto Reich is a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and U.S. ambassador in Venezuela. Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger is a member of the nonprofit organization Americas Forum for Freedom and Prosperity.