What’s happening in Venezuela? Here’s a guide to understand the current crisis
The mystery man behind a major legal bid to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen Venezuelan government funds is aligned with the embattled administration of President Nicolás Maduro, according to federal prosecutors in Miami.
Prosecutors, in court documents, identified him for the first time as Reinaldo Muñoz Pedroza. He was appointed as Venezuela’s “attorney general” by Maduro, who is no longer recognized as the nation’s political leader by President Donald Trump.
Prosecutors disclosed the identity of Muñoz Pedroza while contesting his legal standing to represent the people of Venezuela in an effort to recover funds being seized by the Justice Department in a massive Miami money-laundering case. It accuses a network of wealthy Venezuelan businessmen, government officials and others of stealing $1.2 billion through a bribery and currency-exchange scheme and then investing the money in Europe and the U.S., including luxury real estate in Miami.
In a new court filing, Miami federal prosecutor Michael Nadler and Justice Department lawyer Paul Hayden said that Muñoz Pedroza was condemned in March by Venezuela’s National Assembly, which strongly opposes Maduro.
The National Assembly, headed by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, declared that Muñoz Pedroza “may not be deemed the legitimate Attorney General of the Republic,” the filing says. Venezuela’s legislative body also declared that “all actions and contracts adopted or signed by him, invoking his status as Attorney General of the Republic, must be considered null and void.”
At the same time, the National Assembly appointed a “special prosecutor,” identified as Jose Ignacio Hernandez, to represent Venezuela in foreign courts.
The prosecutors in the Miami case also pointed out that Muñoz Pedroza’s attempts to get involved in two unrelated Venezuelan civil cases in Washington, D.C., and New York have been recently blocked because he lacks legal status.
A Miami lawyer representing Muñoz Pedroza declined to comment about the federal prosecutors’ stand. Attorney William Tunkey said his legal team has until Friday to respond, and then a federal judge will decide whether Muñoz Pedroza can seek victim status and restitution for the Venezuelan people in the Miami money-laundering case.
Tunkey’s legal team is hoping to obtain whatever stolen funds federal authorities seize from future convicted defendants to help the theft’s true “victims,” the Venezuelan people — not Maduro’s government, according to a court motion filed in April.
Tunkey’s Miami law firm was retained to represent Muñoz Pedroza through the international law firm, Dentons, and he was “identified as the ‘attorney general’ of Venezuela and an appointee or representative of the Maduro regime,” according to federal prosecutors, who were informed of this relationship at a meeting with Tunkey in March. Dentons, which has offices worldwide, has represented the Maduro administration in the past.
In response to Tunkey’s motion on behalf of Muñoz Pedroza, the prosecutors did not deal with the issue of whether the Venezuelan government or its people are victims.
But in the past, they argued that the funds stolen from the Venezuelan government and recovered in the United States belong to the U.S. Treasury, not Venezuela’s socialist government. In short, they said that the funds embezzled by Venezuelan officials and their cronies cannot be returned to Venezuela’s government because they were complicit in the crime. They added that Venezuela, as a sovereign state, is not a “victim” in the so-called kleptocracy case under U.S. law.
Bipartisan legislation filed in Congress this year aims to return the stolen government funds to the Venezuelan people, but only if Maduro is replaced by a democratically elected president.
In January, Trump officially recognized Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela after the National Assembly declared Maduro’s presidency illegitimate.
“As such, Muñoz Pedroza [and his lawyers] have no authority to represent the government of Venezuela, and this court should reject such a blatant attempt to undermine the foreign policy authority of ... the president of the United States,” the federal prosecutors wrote in their court filing, urging U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams to reject Muñoz Pedroza’s bid to speak for the Venezuelan government and its people.
Venezuela experts believe American politics and foreign policy will dictate what ultimately happens with money stolen by Venezuelan kleptocrats and diverted into investments in South Florida, New York and Europe.
Russell Dallen, a lawyer and investment manager who has businesses in Miami and Caracas, expressed suspicions about the initially unknown person who claimed to represent the Venezuelan people in the Miami money-laundering case.
“It’s a perfectly legitimate question. Is it the Guaidó government or the Maduro government? ... If it’s the Guaidó good guys, then [the U.S. government] would be willing to give them the money.”
Dallen and other experts say the only likely way that stolen Venezuelan funds recovered by the feds could be returned to Venezuela is through Guaidó. They note the U.S. government doesn’t recognize Maduro as president and that the U.S. Treasury has imposed sanctions against Venezuela’s primary income producer, the state-owned oil company known as PDVSA, freezing its assets in the United States.
The national oil company has been the main source of billions of dollars looted by top officials in the governments of the late President Hugo Chávez and Maduro, as well as by members of Venezuela’s business elite and other connected insiders.
So far, a dozen defendants have been accused in South Florida federal courts of paying bribes for access to the government’s highly lucrative currency-exchange system to create instant fortunes. Four of them have pleaded guilty, including former national treasurer Alejandro Andrade. The rest are considered fugitives living in Venezuela or other foreign countries.