Venezuela’s National Bolivarian Armed Forces have been described as “impenetrable,” with very little about the country's military publicly known — other than that it clearly plays a large role in the survival of the embattled regime of Nicolás Maduro. Even attempts to pinpoint the number of its generals vary widely.
Now, OCCRP has obtained a cache of internal army documents that yield new insight into who makes up this group of supposedly socialist warriors.
Our investigation shows a third of the army’s top brass are pursuing private businesses. Experts say the military’s incursion into the economy began when former President Hugo Chávez started appointing loyal officers to political roles, following a failed coup against him.
Using the new documents, along with company records and interviews with soldiers and insiders, reporters pieced together how senior generals have started private companies that could allow them to cash in on their public roles. Chief among them are a select group who hold positions in companies authorized to receive lucrative state contracts, whom we have dubbed “The 35 Club.”
At the apex of the system sits Maduro’s powerful defense minister, General Vladimir Padrino López. Reporters have linked him to properties and companies worth millions of dollars in Venezuela and the U.S., which this month sanctioned him for narco-terrorism.
Chávez once told viewers of his TV program, “Hello President,” that to be rich “is bad; it’s inhuman.” Nonetheless, many officers charged with defending Chávez’s Bolivarian Socialist Republic are pursuing wealth — and using their military might to do it.
Read on to learn more about who they are and what they’ve been doing.
Since 2013, 35 Venezuelan generals have started dozens of companies, dealing in everything from toys and tourism to food and transportation. Between them, the generals have won hundreds of state contracts, lining their pockets even as most Venezuelans have plunged into desperate poverty.
The 35 generals are profiled below. OCCRP wrote to all of them seeking comment; only two responded, one briefly. The other, Angelvis Antonio Pérez Rodríguez, explained that the cooperative he held shares in had never even been fully registered, and that he was simply a soldier who did not do business of any sort.