During the campaign for Venezuela’s 2013 presidential elections, then-candidate Nicolás Maduro asked the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht for a $50 million bribe if it wanted to continue enjoying its profitable contracts in his country, according to Venezuela’s exiled Attorney General Luisa Ortega.
The company’s chief of operations in Venezuela, Euzenando Azevedo, did not agree. “He only paid him $35 million,” Ortega told el Nuevo Herald in an interview from Colombia.
The amount of the bribe, revealed by Azevedo to Brazilian investigators of the massive Odebrecht corruption scandal, was part of Ortega’s investigation into corruption surrounding Maduro, now president of Venezuela, and his inner circle.
Ortega, who was forced into exile after breaking with the government, recently filed a request with Venezuela’s Supreme Court, also in exile, to issue an international arrest warrant for Maduro.
Her request could determine the legitimacy of the Maduro government in the eyes of the world. Under the Venezuelan constitution, Ortega and the Supreme Court justices remain in office. But Maduro’s hand-carved Constituent Assembly has fired them and appointed replacements.
“Now it is up to other countries whether to recognize these institutions” operating from exile, Ortega said.
The U.S. government, the European Union and most large Latin American countries have already announced that they will not recognize the Constituent Assembly, which would mean that for a large part of the international community Ortega remains Venezuela’s attorney general. She was fired in August by the Constituent Assembly but the constitution holds that only the national legislature can fire an attorney general.
The test of her authority could come in the next few days if the Supreme Court in exile and then the legislature approve Ortega’s request that Maduro be arrested on charges of corruption.
“It is up to the legitimate Supreme Court to rule on this request. They already appointed one justice to handle the case … and now they have to make a decision,” Ortega said. “If they approve the measure I requested, the first thing they have to do is notify INTERPOL to issue a red alert for Maduro’s arrest.”
Ortega, who took many of the documents on the corruption cases involving the Maduro government with her when she fled the country, said the information unearthed by the Brazilian investigators showed that Odebrecht paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to continue the many contracts it obtained under Maduro and his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chavez.
Just 13 of those projects, all still unfinished and most abandoned, carried a price tag of $40 billion, Ortega said.
Odebrecht found a capitalist paradise in socialist-ruled Venezuela, where the giant engineering firm won enormous contracts based on the close friendship between Chavez and former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva.
The company easily won government contracts worth millions of dollars without going through a bidding process, and when it failed to meet the conditions of the contracts, the Venezuelan side never made the problems public.
The experience was not as good for Venezuelans. The majority of the public works contracted to Odebrecht fell behind schedule and rose far above the price set, at times two and three times higher than the initially contracted amounts.
Odebrecht is only one of the many cases under investigation, according to Ortega.
“There’s a very delicate case, the one that has to do with food. We are investigating it and we handed over evidence to prosecutors in Colombia and Mexico,” she added.
The program for government-subsidized food, known as CLAP, is at the heart of that case and involves some of the government officials closest to Maduro, Ortega said.
That case puts the health of Venezuelans at risk because many of the CLAP products do not meet the requirements for human consumption, according to Ortega.
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM