Thor Halvorssen, a Venezuelan telecom executive and human-rights leader, died on Sunday in North Miami. He was 71 and had suffered a head injury after a fall at home.
The son of a successful Norwegian businessman and diplomat, Halvorssen grew up in Venezuela in the 1950s and attended the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to Venezuela and became an unexpected figure in the country’s political and economic life.
At age 34, he became one of the youngest CEOs in Venezuela as the helm of telephone giant CANTV. The presidency of CANTV was considered one of the most prestigious political appointment in the country’s economic sector.
At 36, Halvorssen transitioned from government to the presidency of the Dividendo Voluntario para la Comunidad, Venezuela’s most important grant-giving charitable foundation, which was founded by businessman Eugenio Mendoza Goiticoa. Halvorssen, along with his successor, Marcel Granier, were the longest serving presidents of the Dividendo.
Halvorssen’s commercial activities were wide-ranging and included ownership of Venezuelan insurance company Axxa, and representation of international conglomerates Dunlop, Ericsson, British Cellophane. Halvorssen was also a real estate developer, owning the company that built the 350-room Melia Caribe hotel. Halvorssen’s real estate holdings included vast land holdings in the state of Guárico, all which were eventually expropriated by the Chávez government in 2006.
Halvorssen’s commercial success in the 1980s gave him a window to voice support for victims of human rights violations in Central America that had been ignored during the proxy wars between the Soviet Union and the United States. Halvorssen co-founded the Caracas-based Rómulo Gallegos human rights organization from where he took up the causes of Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians and focused on violations of human rights by Marxist rebel groups throughout Central American and Colombia.
Halvorssen participated in the creation and financing of the “alternative human right forums” that began in Geneva in the early 1990s. Halvorssen served on the boards of the Andrei Sakharov Institute and headed the Pan-American committee of the International Society for Human Rights.
In 1989, with the reelection of Carlos Andrés Pérez to Venezuela’s presidency, Halvorssen was appointed the country’s senior diplomat for Anti-Narcotic Affairs as presidential commissioner with the rank of ambassador. Halvorssen’s shift from cold war human rights issues to the fight against drug trafficking was the most polemic and dangerous decision of his life. Halvorssen’s focus became money laundering by the allies of Medellín Cartel leader Pablo Escobar Gaviria—a man who had frequently visited Venezuela and had friendships in the country’s banking and business elite.
Halvorssen’s crusade became quixotic as he simultaneously took on the entire banking sector without a budget or structural support in the government. Finding his work in Venezuela thwarted by a corrupt judiciary, Halvorssen began cooperating with U.S. law enforcement authorities.
In October of 1993, at the height of his investigations into Banco Latino and Grupo Progreso, Halvorssen was arrested and accused of having planted a car bomb. The accusations included stock market manipulation and a plot to overthrow the government. Halvorssen was held for 74 days without charges being filed and on an arrest warrant with no evidence. The case against Halvorssen crumbled as Halvorssen found his own cause being taken by Amnesty International, Germany’s International Society for Human Rights and the Helsinki Committees of various countries.
Within weeks of Halvorssen’s release, Banco Latino collapsed amid a billion-dollar theft. Other bankers investigated by Halvorssen, such as Escobar associate Orlando Castro Llanes, were subsequently arrested and imprisoned for fraud in New York.
With the rise of Hugo Chávez to the presidency of Venezuela, Halvorssen enthusiastically organized exile discussions in Miami and publishing frequently about the dictatorial nature of the government.
Halvorssen is survived by his wife Nelly, his children Eduardo, Thor, Randi Margarita, Karena, and Vilhelm, and his brothers Erik and Olaf.