Opposition efforts to capture Venezuela's foreign assets draw scrutiny
By ANTHONY FAIOLA AND ANA VANESSA HERRERO | The Washington Post | Published: January 2, 2021
MIAMI — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó had the recognition of the United States and the support of millions in the streets.
But with Nicolás Maduro still occupying the presidential palace and commanding Venezuela's security forces, Guaidó's so-called interim government needed cash to project power abroad and undermine the president at home.
Now two Miami entrepreneurs were offering a plan to get it.
Jorge Reyes and Pedro Antar said they had identified up to $40 billion in Venezuelan government assets across the Caribbean. The holdings, including shares in companies, luxury cars, lavish homes and uncollected debts, were linked to Venezuela's state-controlled oil company.
Guaidó, Reyes told The Washington Post, called the men himself in April 2019 to express interest. That led to more than a dozen meetings with senior members of Guaidó's U.S.-backed opposition and their agents.
But during a meeting last December in the Miami suburb of Doral, Reyes said he and Antar received a handwritten letter, a photograph of which was supplied to The Post, with a list of what he described as "shocking" demands.
Those demands included an upfront payment of $750,000 to a Florida company that state records show is co-owned by Magin Blasi, brother of a senior official at the Guaidó-controlled Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. That company would also become their partner, the letter stipulated, sharing in the 18% commission the men had negotiated with Guaidó's officials.
"I was astonished," Reyes said. "I asked myself, 'Does President Guaidó know about this?' I mean, these guys were clearly trying to do something illegal. You can't even talk about something like this on U.S. soil. It was extortion . . . Either pay, or we didn't get the contract."
After Maduro claimed victory in elections widely viewed as fraudulent, the Trump administration last year recognized Guaidó, the president of Venezuela's democratically elected National Assembly, as the country's legitimate leader. U.S. officials described the authoritarian Maduro as the head of a corrupt criminal empire engaged in drug trafficking and other illegal activities; the Justice Department indicted Maduro and several members of his inner circle last year on charges of narcoterrorism. Maduro and others charged have denied wrongdoing.
The embrace of Guaidó as interim president carried an implicit promise: His government would be held to a higher standard than its predecessors; corruption would not be tolerated.
The two Guaidó government officials with whom Reyes and Antar discussed the Miami deal – avier Troconis and Fernando Blasi – both deny wrongdoing. They say the belated discovery of a previous fraud case involving Reyes led them to reject the deal. (Reyes is appealing the charges in that case.)
When the allegations by Reyes and Antar were first reported by the Miami-based website Factores de Poder, the interim government issued a statement in September dismissing them as unfounded. But in recent weeks, officials pushed for an internal investigation, conducted by a committee of legislators from the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
(Guaidó and his allies boycotted a legislative election held by Maduro in December, saying it would be fraudulent; the winners of that election will be sworn into the National Assembly on Tuesday. Three of the four major opposition parties have voted to extend the term of the Guaidó-led assembly and keep him as interim leader, but with new limits on his power. The Trump administration has said it will continue to recognize Guaidó, and advisers to President-elect Joe Biden have said he will do the same, as long as he maintains the backing of the increasingly divided opposition.)
In a preliminary report, the committee raised questions about "administrative irregularities" in Troconis's dealings with Reyes and Antar, but found no evidence of corruption, according to a person familiar with the investigation. The committee is recommending a further probe by the interim government's comptroller's office.
Guaidó's ambassador to the United States, Carlos Vecchio, has asked the U.S. government to conduct its own investigation into the case.
"I don't put my hands in fire for anyone," Vecchio said. "I believe that if there is evidence, we have to investigate."
Antar said the FBI interviewed him in October. The State Department and FBI did not respond to requests for comment.
A Post investigation, including more than 20 interviews and a review of documents including prospective contracts, uncovered multiple proposed deals involving Troconis that would have required what some opposition members have characterized as large and unusual payments. They include a prospective contract with the government of Paraguay with a $26 million commission to be paid to third parties that raised alarms within Guaidó's own legal team. Another proposed deal, to recover assets in a British bank, would have involved a contract that opposition officials say Troconis wasn't authorized to sign.
Troconis, a former oil executive backed by powerful opposition figures, still serves as Guaidó's special commissioner for asset recovery, working from exile largely in Miami, Bogota, Columbia, and Washington. In an extensive interview, he denied any wrongdoing. In a recent committee hearing, he seemed to blame Guaidó's enemies for the allegations.
"This is an attack against all of us," he said. He insisted that all evidence produced by Reyes and Antar was "false."
"I am the most interested in having the truth come out because I am the one telling the truth," he said.
But inside the Venezuelan opposition, consternation is building over the interim government's decision to keep Troconis in his job.
"Morally, it doesn't make sense that he is still holding his position," said Elimar Díaz, a member of the National Assembly committee that is investigating Troconis.
Current and former officials within the interim government have raised concerns about at least two other proposed deals negotiated by Troconis.
José Ignacio Hernández, Guaidó's former attorney general, said he warned senior officials in Guaidó's government "repeatedly" that Troconis was acting beyond his authority – he was meant to identify government assets, but not personally seek their recovery – when he tried to negotiate the deal with Paraguay last year.
According to two drafts of the unexecuted contract obtained by The Post, the deal would have forgiven half of the $269 million debt that Paraguay agrees it owes Venezuela (Venezuela puts the figure at $290 million). Hernández said it was negotiated without the knowledge of the oil industry overseers appointed by Guaidó. It would have paid out what Hernández called a "disproportionate" commission to an Argentine lawyer named Sebastián Vidal. In the second draft of the contract, Vidal would have received 20% of the settlement, or more than $26 million.
Vidal told The Post he had been hired by Troconis without receiving any retainer in the hope of sealing a deal. He said the proposed commission was "lower" than he normally charges, and said Troconis never asked him for a portion of it.
Troconis told the National Assembly that the Paraguayans had approached him with the deal. He denied hiring Vidal.
Paraguayan officials dispute those claims. Juan Ernesto Villamayor, chief of staff to Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez, said Vidal introduced himself as "a representative of PDVSA," Venezuela's state-owned oil company, to which Guaidó has named a new board. In October, Villamayor said, Vidal asked for a meeting between Paraguayan officials and Troconis. The following month, he said, Vidal and Troconis presented the proposed deal.
Troconis told The Post he had been put in contact with Vidal by members of the Venezuelan opposition whose names he could not recall. He said Vidal called him to suggest he become a mediator, and he agreed. He challenged Hernández's assertion that his job did not give him the legal right to negotiate deals and produced a letter from Guaidó that he said authorized his involvement in the Paraguay talks.
Troconis said he sent a letter to Vidal in January ending the negotiations because he had concluded "it was not a good deal." But Villamayor said Guaidó asked the Paraguayan government in March to send the proposal to Hernández for review. Hernández said he received the contract in March and told the Paraguayans it was not legally valid and would not be accepted. Hernández resigned as Guaidó's attorney general that month.
Guaidó, through a spokesman, declined to answer questions for this story.
The National Assembly committee also investigated a contract Troconis signed with a South Florida law firm to recover an account in Britain containing nearly $1.7 billion from the Venezuelan Food Ministry. Both Troconis and the firm said he signed the contract with the firm on behalf of Guaidó's government. The committee did not comment on the deal in its preliminary report. But Guaidó's current attorney general, Enrique Sánchez Falcón, said Troconis did not have authority to sign it.
"The only one authorized to sign contracts with law firms or recovery companies, on behalf of the Republic or state companies, is the General Attorney of the Republic," Falcón wrote in an email to The Post. "Any contract signed by people other than those mentioned in the previous answer will be illegal and therefore invalid."
Troconis said he was introduced to Reyes and Antar by National Assembly member Carlos Prosperi, head of one of the four main opposition parties that back Guaidó, in December 2019. He said Magin Blasi was also present at the meeting. Blasi is the brother of Fernando Blasi, the commercial section chief of the Guaidó-controlled Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. Troconis said he had hired Magin Blasi as an "adviser" for the deal: "It was my decision. He had experience."
Magin Blasi, through his brother, Fernando Blasi, declined to comment. He did not respond to direct messages.
Troconis said the deal seemed attractive. In early January, he gave Antar and Reyes a letter of agreement, meant to be a bridge to a formal contract. But then due diligence turned up a legal action in which Reyes was fined nearly $4 million by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and barred from association with any Finra member for allegedly defrauding investors between 2013 and 2016. Finra is an independent organization that governs registered brokers in the United States. Reyes is appealing the charges.
"When we start to review their paperwork, is when we realize that there were fraud issues," Troconis said. "When I reviewed the proposal I never imagined they had those kind of intentions."
Reyes and Antar said they disclosed the fraud allegations to the interim government before they received the letter of agreement.
According to both Reyes and Antar, the deal fell apart after they refused to pay a $50,000 advance on the requested $750,000. Reyes and Antar produced an invoice for $50,000 from Energica Power, a company that Florida records show was owned by Magin Blasi until September, when it was dissolved.
The request was made through a WhatsApp number allegedly belonging to Magin Blasi, they said.
Troconis, asked about the invoice, said, "I suppose that is not true."
"I think Magin is a serious person," he said. "But I don't know."
Fernando Blasi confirmed that his brother owned Energica Power but denied that any extraordinary payments were demanded. He suggested that both the invoice and WhatsApp messages shown by Reyes and Antar had been doctored.
"None of this can be believed," Blasi said.