Politically connected Venezuelans live high life

Some involved in an international scandal live large in Florida.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published December 17, 2007

MIAMI - A politically explosive criminal case unveiled by federal prosecutors last week sheds light on a new Venezuelan business elite that has grown fat off that country's socialist revolution.

They enjoyed the high life in some of South Florida's ritziest districts. But at the same time they were buying waterfront property in Key Biscayne, one of Florida's wealthiest island communities, they were pledging allegiance to Venezuela's fiery left-wing president, Hugo Chavez.

One of them even drove a Porsche Boxster with a bumper sticker promoting "21st Century Socialism."

"I wouldn't call these people Chavistas. They are only in it for the money," said Ken Rijock, a money laundering expert who lives in Key Biscayne and has written extensively about the new Venezuelan millionaires.

Their flashy lifestyle and political ties were the gossip for some time in Hispanic expatriate circles and the Spanish-language media. But mostly they kept a low profile, avoiding politics to focus on their far-flung business dealings.

That anonymity crumbled suddenly Wednesday when federal officials announced the indictment of five men, four of them Venezuelans, accused of illegally operating as unregistered government agents in this country.

Wednesday's arrests stem from the August seizure of a suitcase containing almost $800,000 in undeclared cash at the Buenos Aires airport.

The suitcase was carried by Guido Antonini, 46, a Venezuelan-American businessman who also lives in Key Biscayne, in a $1.2-million apartment at the luxury Ocean Club condominium, where monthly maintenance fees run to $1,500.

Prosecutors say Antonini was delivering the money to the election campaign of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, who took office last week. Antonini was not arrested and is believed to be cooperating with U.S. officials.

The arrested men are accused of conspiring on behalf of the Venezuelan government to conceal the origin of the cash by creating a false paper trail and threatening Antonini to keep quiet.

The case has set off a political firestorm, with Venezuelan and Argentine officials accusing Washington of fabricating a scandal to destabilize left-wing governments in the region.

But analysts say the case throws a spotlight on the shadowy business side of Chavez's oil-rich "Bolivarian Revolution" and the country's new elite, dubbed the "Boli-bourgeoisie" by opponents.

"These guys were relative nobodies before Chavez came along," said Thor Halvorssen, a Venezuelan exile in Miami and outspoken anti-Chavez activist. "Within a year or two of Chavez taking office, they were on the roller coaster."

"It's clear that Venezuela is still a very mercantilist country," said Simon Strong, the Miami-based director of International Risk and Investigations at FTI, a business consulting firm. "I'm not sure that many of those who have benefited on the business side during the Chavez years would make much reference to socialist revolution."

Two of the defendants - Franklin Duran and Carlos Kauffmann - own a large Venezuelan petrochemical company, Industrias Venoco. It does business with the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, one of the world's largest petroleum exporters. Kauffmann also has a stake in Perforaciones Alborz CA, which supplied drills to the state oil company.

Venoco was formerly owned by a group of businessmen, some of whom were involved in an aborted April 2002 coup against Chavez. Soon after, Duran and Kauffmann emerged as Venoco's owners.

Duran is also listed in Venezuela as owner of an arms purchasing company, Ruibal y Duran, which claims to import antiriot gear for the Venezuelan government. The company was investigated by Venezuela's Congress in 2003 for allegedly importing 115 Uzis without permission, but no charges resulted.

In Venezuela, the men are widely considered testaferros, or front men for high-ranking politicians in Chavez's inner circle. The U.S. government put Duran and Kauffmann on a list of "politically exposed people," a designation for those who need special screening because of their close ties to foreign politicians, according to Duran's attorney, Michael Hacker.

There is nothing improper about these relationships, Hacker said, and his clients are innocent of the charges filed Wednesday, describing themas "squeaky clean."

Both men were until recently close friends and business partners of Antonini, who carried the suitcase. Antonini worked for Venoco and was also a business partner in several Florida companies with Duran, his neighbor in Key Biscayne.

Duran, 40, owns a $4.6-million waterfront villa on Mashta Island, one of Key Biscayne's most exclusive addresses. A Ferrari sits in the driveway, next to a late-model Audi.

Kauffmann, 35, owns several homes in South Florida and also drives a Ferrari, according to media reports.

The three men were such friends that they competed together in the Gumball 3000 millionaires road rally in Europe this year, racing a Porsche Carrera GT and a Mercedes SLR McLaren representing Team Venoco. Duran crashed his $600,000 Porsche in Croatia before the race was stopped when two people were killed in a separate accident.

Another team car, a Ferrari, reportedly bore a sticker with a Chavez government logo.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires. David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.


Other Venezuelans in the news

Eudomario Carruyo Jr.

In April, Eudomario Carruyo Jr., a young executive in Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, drove his $150,000 silver Lamborghini Gallardo into a palm tree after leaving a Key Biscayne party late at night, killing the passenger. Carruyo, whose father is head of finance at Petroleos de Venezuela, was charged with manslaughter and driving under the influence. He was released on $100,000 bail but failed to appear at a court hearing. He is assumed to have fled the country.

Wilmer Ruperti

Carruyo worked for Wilmer Ruperti, a multimillionaire Venezuelan shipping tycoon and oil trader and one of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's wealthiest backers. In 2004 he famously paid $1.7-million at a New York auction for a pair of antique 19th century French pistols made for Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's independence hero. Ruperti was investigated by Venezuela's Congress in 2005 over allegations that he made millions from double-billing the state oil company for gasoline shipments. No charges were brought.

Ricardo Fernandez Barruecos

Ricardo Fernandez Barruecos owns Proarepa, a large Venezuelan food company with an exclusive contract to supply government-run markets for the poor. A $5-million private plane owned by Fernandez was seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration last year at Fort Lauderdale's airport. The Drug Enforcement Administration alleged that the plane was illegally registered in the United States because none of the partners in the company were U.S. citizens, the Miami Herald reported. The case is ongoing.

Alex del Nogal

The men indicted Wednesday are said to be the good friends of several people close to Chavez, including Alex del Nogal, a convicted murderer who was jailed in the early 1990s for a killing in which the victim was thrown from a plane into the sea. After taking office, Chavez pardoned del Nogal, who went on to be appointed to the Venezuelan secret police. Del Nogal was arrested two months ago at an Italian airport on drug-related charges.

Information from the Wall Street Journal and Miami Herald was used in this report.