Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been named 2016’s Person of the Year by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
The award recognizes the individual who has done the most in the world to advance organized criminal activity and corruption.
A panel of eight journalists, scholars and activists expert in fighting corruption chose Maduro for the global award on the strength of his corrupt and oppressive reign, so rife with mismanagement that citizens of his oil-rich nation are literally starving and begging for medicines.
As murder and crime in Venezuela has skyrocketed and political oppression has intensified, the president and his inner circle, including wife Cilia Flores, have extracted millions from state coffers to cover the patronage that keeps him in power.
The Financial Times dubbed him Venezuela’s “Lord of Misrule” in dissecting his performance. Reporters Without Borders named him a “Press Freedom Predator” for his ingenuity in silencing critical media. He has had friends buy up key outlets, orchestrated newsprint shortages, and criminalized articles that “call into question legitimately constituted authority.”
“It’s been a big year for Maduro,” said Drew Sullivan, editor of OCCRP and one of the judges. “I think this year has been the tipping point and his negligence, incompetence and corruption are the cause. When a country’s leader can watch his people starve and still oversee a government stealing $70 billion a year all while his family deals drugs, it’s a special kind of evil. He deserves this prize.”
Maduro, a former bus driver and trade union leader who served as foreign minister under President Hugo Chavez, rose to the presidency when Chavez died in 2013. The increasingly isolated president claims to speak to his predecessor’s spirit through a “little bird.” He has ruled mostly by fiat, waving off legislative action and quashing the mounting citizen protests.
In November, a jury in New York convicted two of Flores’ nephews in a multimillion-dollar drug scam designed to raise funds to keep the family in power. The nephews plotted to use the presidential hangar at a Venezuelan airport to ship 800 kilograms of cocaine to the US through Honduras.
Judge Masha Gessen, an author and activist, made the case for Duterte, saying that he has set up death squads to slaughter drug dealers (and users) without due process, unleashing a grotesque vigilantism in the world. She believes Duterte has led the way in outsourcing to vigilante groups violence condoned by and useful to the government.
“[Russian President Vladmir] Putin is increasingly doing it, and I think there is a very real danger of … [others] doing it,” she said. “This is Duterte's main distinguishing characteristic as a monster.”
Paul Radu, executive director of OCCRP and another judge, voted for Maduro after recently working in Venezuela, where he says he found the same disturbing conditions Gessen described in the Philippines.
“Vigilante justice is happening right now in Venezuela,” he said. “Joint civilian-off duty army and police officers squads go on hunts for civilians and criminals, killing innocents. Maduro has also changed Venezuela into a narco state. He is appointing persons investigated for drug trafficking to very high positions in his government.”
The records show he was personally involved in the brutal suppression of protests against his regime that preceded the current deadly civil war.
OCCRP is a not-for-profit consortium of regional investigative centers and for-profit independent media stretching from Europe to Central Asia and in Latin America. Its mission is to help the public understand how organized crime and corruption affect their lives and to improve reporting on corruption. OCCRP seeks to provide in-depth investigative stories as well as the latest news pertaining to organized crime and corruption activities around the world. It is funded by the Open Society Foundations, USAID, European governments and other major international donors. It has offices in Sarajevo, Bucharest, and Tbilisi.
Mark Galeotti, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
Masha Gessen, Russian and American journalist, author, and activist noted for opposition to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.
Pavla Holcova, founder of the Czech Center for Investigative Reporting and former board member of OCCRP.
Paul Radu, award-winning cross-border investigative reporter, co-founder and director of the OCCRP and a founder of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism.
Gerard Ryle, Irish-Australian investigative reporter who has written on politics, financial and medical scandals, and police corruption. Leads the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Rana Sabbagh, executive director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.
Louise Shelley, author and endowed professor at the Schar School of Policy and International Affairs at George Mason University; founder and executive director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. Authority on terrorism, transnational crime and corruption.
Drew Sullivan, investigative journalist and media development specialist, founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia and co-founder and editor of the OCCRP.
Ivan Angelovski, a Serbian investigative reporter who says he has experienced what a criminal government can do to a country, submitted that winning design, a cube inspired by the 2014 protests in Kiev.
Angelovski visited Kiev shortly after the Euromaidan demonstrations that ousted Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych and he saw the center of the city that had been devastated in clashes between citizens and the armed forces of their corrupted government. Protestors had hurled anything they could get their hands on against those forces, he said, including bricks and cobblestones taken from Independence Square.
Angelovski’s was one of two proposed designs sent into OCCRP that used stone cubes. Sue Brower, a freelance graphic artist from Ithaca, NY, suggested that the faces of victims impressed into cobblestones would symbolize disregard for human life being crushed underfoot.
But Angelovski saw the cobblestones in Kiev as a tool against the evil status quo. He proposed putting the face of the Person of the Year on a stone perhaps collected from the very country of the winner as a reminder that ordinary citizens can take action for change.