In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Authoritarian leaders breed corruption

What’s most amazing about the arrest in Miami of Bolivia’s top anti-corruption police official, caught on tape extorting a bribe from a well-known businessman, was that hardly anybody was surprised by the news.

Corruption by top officials of Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina and other Latin American authoritarian populist countries has become so common in this part of the world that the media treated the story like a routine event.

In Miami, where Bolivian National Police Col. Mario Fabricio Ormachea was arrested on Aug. 29 on charges of trying to extort former Bolivian airline owner Humberto Roca, The Miami Herald didn’t publish the story on its front page. It appeared in the Local and State section.

The New York Times hadn’t published a line about the case at the time of this writing. The Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald carried the news in a small box at the bottom of its front page.

Humberto Roca, the former owner of Bolivia’s Aerosur airline, helped break the case after he was wired by the FBI to tape his meeting with Ormachea.

During a long interview at his home on Friday, he said he contacted the FBI at the insistence of his Miami lawyer shortly before the meeting. The Bolivian official had been asking him for money for several weeks in order to drop Bolivian government charges against him, he said.

Ormachea was video-recorded at Roca’s home receiving $5,000 in advance money, according to an FBI affidavit. People who have seen the videotape told me that Ormachea can be seen happily counting the money.

“I asked him how much he was going to charge me overall, and he said $30,000,” Roca told me. “It looks like very little money, but that’s the way they work. They ask you for little money at the beginning, and later they tell you that ‘there have been complications’ and shake you down for more.”

Asked whether this case goes all the way up to President Evo Morales, Roca told me he does not want to respond to that question now, because it could hurt the U.S. investigation.

Roca said that, in general, “corruption has multiplied to unprecedented levels since the arrival of Morales, who alongside Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera are on top of it.”

Roca was one of the founders of Aerosur in 1992, and took charge of the company in 1997. The airline has been under attack from several governments that wanted to prevent private competition with state-owned airlines, he said.

After the creation of the state-owned Boliviana de Aviación in 2007, the government started suing Aerosur and its owners for all kinds of crimes, including terrorism.

Morales clearly wanted to eliminate any private competition, Roca said.

Roca was forced out of Aerosur in 2011, and the airline closed down more than a year later. The government later charged Roca with fraudulent bankruptcy, while Roca sued the Bolivian government for unlawful expropriation.

Ormachea, who now sits in a Miami jail awaiting trial, is only the latest Morales government official charged with corruption abroad. In 2011, the head of Bolivia’s counterdrug agency, Rene Sanabria, was arrested on charges of cocaine smuggling and sentenced by a Miami court to 15 years in prison.

Similarly, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s government has signed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars with the president’s brother, Fabricio Correa, who has himself publicly confirmed such business deals.

In Venezuela, a lawsuit filed by former U.S. ambassador Otto Reich earlier this year claims that four bolichicos — as the sons of well-connected members of the Bolivarian bourgeoisie are known — who had no experience in the electricity sector got 12 government contracts worth more than $1 billion between 2009 and 2010. There were no public bids, and they won the contracts by paying kickbacks to Venezuelan officials and buying mansions in New York, the suit claims.

Then there’s Guido Antonini Wilson, the Miami-based Venezuelan businessman who was caught with $800,000 in cash in his suitcase at the Buenos Aires airport in 2008. The money was Venezuelan government funds for Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s presidential campaign, according to U.S. court documents.

My opinion: There is corruption everywhere, and not just in self-proclaimed leftist countries such as Bolivia. There is also corruption in the United States — and we know that in Miami where we have had three local mayors charged with corruption in recent weeks.

But the problem is worse in Bolivia and with fellow “Bolivarian” populist governments because they have taken over all major institutions and silenced the independent media. With near total powers, their governments enjoy a license to steal with impunity.

The problem with these countries is not their ideology, but their suppression of checks and balances. Without an independent justice system and a critical press, they are becoming world champions of corruption.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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