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(Tribune News Service) — At his inauguration speech as head of the Venezuelan navy, now-retired Admiral Carlos Aniasi Turchio boasted that Venezuela’s armed forces were revolutionary at their core, having been born out of the “will of the people to break free from the chains of ‘The Empire’” — an obvious reference to the United States.

But his sworn antagonism toward the United States did not keep him from retiring in Florida. The admiral, a trusted ally who played different roles in the government of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s late president, settled down in a spacious $620,000 Kissimmee home, and opened a couple of Florida companies, one of them holding $1.5 million in commercial property.

Aniasi is among a large number of Venezuelan government officials and members of the military who after helping build the so-called Bolivarian Revolution ended up moving, investing or opening businesses in Florida, a stronghold of Venezuelan exiles forced to leave the South American country to escape the persecution and dire economic conditions brought about by the regime.

Data obtained by the Venezuelan investigative site Armando.info and the Miami Herald show there are at least 232 members of the Venezuelan military or members of the country’s Defense Ministry who have opened companies in Florida. There are also more than 700 companies whose owners or directors are — or were at some point — mid-level or high ranking officials in the Caracas socialist regime.

Armando.info and the Miami Herald went through more than 128,000 records of public office appointments and removals made in Venezuela dating back to 2007 and cross-checked them with the names appearing as officers or directors in companies registered with the Florida Division of Corporations.

The examination of the data, which covers about half of the Hugo Chávez period and most of the years of his successor, current strongman Nicolás Maduro, revealed the names of 724 regime officials that also appear in the Florida company registry. The examination of a small sample of the names showed matching dates of births between Venezuelan government officials and Florida company directors in about two-thirds of the cases, with the rest deemed inconclusive for lack of information.

More than 480,000 Venezuelans are believed to be living in the United States (about 200,000 of them in Florida), the vast majority of them leaving the South American country after Chávez came to power in 1998 and sought to install a Cuban-styled socialist revolution in the formerly oil-rich country. Those displaying sympathy toward the United States were forced to leave public office and the military during the early years of the Chávez government. By 2007, the first year included in the examination, officials were often required to publicly express loyalty toward the Bolivarian Revolution or hostility towards the United States.

Yet, the animosity towards the United States was superficial for hundreds of regime officials, even among those rewarded with high-ranking positions.

That appears to be the case of Maj. Gen. Jimmy Lenin Guzmán Pinto. After administering a number of state-run companies for the regime, including the insurance company Seguros Horizonte, he landed in Florida and in 2019 registered a Fort Myers firm called Latam Risk Consulting 2107 LLC.

As with most of the former regime officials consulted for this article, Guzmán Pinto does not deny that anti-American sentiment runs deep within the regime, with both Chávez and Maduro frequently describing the United States as a natural enemy to Venezuela. He said he did not share those views, claiming that he tried to stay away from that type of politics.

“If I were anti-American, I would not be here,” he said. Guzmán Pinto added he already had ties with the United States, adding that one of his sons is an American citizen. Yet, he acknowledged that migrating to the United States was never in his plans.

“I had no plans of leaving the country, but suddenly I found my self in a situation were I had to leave intermediately, and I did so without thinking twice,” he said.

The “situation” was that he was informed he was about to be arrested. Guzmán Pinto says he does not know exactly why the regime turned against him.

Dozens of military officers and hundreds of political dissidents have been arrested and many of them tortured in Venezuela under the regime, with Maduro himself facing charges of human rights violations at the International Criminal Court.

Among the records gathered during the investigation by the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and Armando.info were those of a company belonging to architect Lucas Pou, who headed the Presidential Office of Plans and Special Projects between 2010 and 2012. He was hired by his friend and partner, former Culture Minister Francisco Sesto, to design a number of public buildings in Venezuela, which included the Liberator’s Mausoleum.

In 2015, Pou opened Miami-based IMA Fleet LLC, which was dissolved three years later, around the time he was being investigated by the opposition-controlled National Assembly over the alleged misappropriation of $1.5 billion destined for the construction of six hospitals that were never built.

According to the investigation by the Venezuelan National Assembly, the architect “profited from the contracts awarded by the Ministry of Health for the construction of hospitals, which would have represented an ‘excessively large’ benefits for Lucas Pou, taking into account that he had never been hired before by any state institution.”

In a telephone interview, Pou said that he was cleared in Venezuela of any wrongdoing and that his innocence was also confirmed in an investigation made on the case by Transparencia Venezuela, the local unit of the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International. He said that while he was initially hired to develop some of the projects, he played no role in the allocations of funds. “We did the work and that was it,” he said.

The Transparencia Venezuela report does in fact omit Pou’s name in its lists of potential culprits.

The former government official said he also did not feel any animosity toward the United States.

“I often visited the United States without problems. My great grandfather, my grandfather and my father were all Americans, from Puerto Rico, from Ponce, and for me the United States is not a country that I feel to be an enemy, nor do I feel any hostility towards me,” Pou said.

In some instances, the road traveled by Venezuelans went the other way. Such was the case of Samir Adel Al Attrach, who in 2017 closed his Orlando-based company Mr Caucho Corp., before he was appointed chief of Venezuela’s diplomatic mission to the United Arab Emirates. The corporate records do not identify what the company does, but its name suggests it might have had something to do with automotive parts. In Venezuela, caucho is the term normally used for car tires.

“The company was created online in 2015 and later, one or two years later, was closed,” Al Attrach said in an email, although he did not disclose the purpose of the firm.

In other cases, the links to Florida involve former officials who started new companies in the Venezuelan private sector that have had business dealings in Florida after becoming regular suppliers to the Venezuelan government.

Among these officials is Carlos Luis Michel Fumero, the former customs administrator at the Simón Bolívar International Airport in Maiquetía, outside Caracas, who now runs a custom brokerage firm Aducarga, which has offices in Miami and the Venezuelan city of Valencia.

Michel was originally appointed to public office by the superintendent of the National Integrated Customs and Tax Administration Service (Seniat), José David Cabello, and had previously benefited from his ties with Cabello’s brother, Diosdado Cabello, who is often referred to as the second most powerful man in Venezuela.

While serving as governor of Miranda state, Diosdado Cabello awarded contracts to one of Michel’s construction companies, Camik. Efforts to reach Michel were not successful and he didn’t respond to messages left for him at Aducarga.

The presence of hated Venezuelan officials in Florida is a source of bewilderment for some members of the exile community, who wonder how they were allowed to come into the United States.

A State Department official consulted for this article said that all visa applications are evaluated on a case-by-case basis but warned that “some Venezuelans may be subject to restrictions on entry based on their role in undermining democracy in Venezuela and supporting the Maduro government.”

It is currently difficult for high-ranking Venezuelan officials to reach the United States, in light of Presidential Proclamation 9931, which suspends entry “as immigrants and non-immigrants to senior members of the Maduro regime and other persons that formulate, implement, or benefit from policies or actions that undermine Venezuela’s democratic institutions or impede the restoration of constitutional government to Venezuela, as well as the immediate family members of such persons.”

But a large number of former regime members managed to reach the United States before Donald Trump, while president, issued the proclamation on Sept. 25, 2019.

Tobias Roche, a former federal agent with a long history of combating Latin American corruption practices, believes that the influx of Venezuelan regime officials into the United States poses special challenges given the ill-gotten fortunes that at times they bring with them.

Money laundering is not a new phenomenon in South Florida. It dates back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, said Roche, who for 30 years worked with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshals Service.

“But now the risk is intertwined among the many Venezuelans arriving, the vast majority of whom are good and hard-working people, but among whom are a hidden few that come from the Chavista regime and who are establishing themselves here as respectable people. … There are people under the radar that have come here and are actually working for the government of Venezuela,” he said.

While most former officials planting new roots in Florida have been able to remain under the radar, there are a few that have been discovered by members of the exile community, exposed through social media and subjected to public scorn.

Exiles protested in front of houses or businesses of former Public Banking Minister Eugenio Vásquez Orellana, a close ally to former Apure state Gov. Ramón Carrizález; of former Congresswoman Iroshima Bravo, who is linked to powerful regime member Diosdado Cabello, and of Admiral Aniasi Turchio.

The reaction against Iroshima Bravo proved devastating for a new business that was opening its doors in Doral. While her name was never linked to Pure Med Spa de Doral, her presence at the grand opening party prompted a public uproar in the Venezuelan community that forced the company to close before it could actually open.

Bravo is believed to be in Venezuela and could not be reached to comment.

U.S. officials have been keeping a close eye on rich Venezuelan businessmen in recent years and have opened cases against some of them after finding out they have used the American banking system to launder ill-gotten funds. These include Venezuelan billionaires such as former national Treasurer Alejandro Andrade and close Maduro ally Raúl Gorrín, who is charged in the United States with paying Andrade $1 billion in exchange for access to the highly profitable, government-controlled foreign exchange scheme.

Before he fled back to Venezuela, Gorrín lived at a mansion in Coral Gables and had more than a dozen properties in South Florida registered under different company names.

The presence of Admiral Aniasi Turchio near Orlando is another case that continues to surprise some, given the prominent role he played in Venezuela and accusations of corruption and alleged narco-trafficking associated with him.

In a highly publicized statement, Venezuelan drug trafficker Wallid Makled said in an interview that he paid millions to the admiral in exchange for being allowed to operate freely out of the Puerto Cabello port.

“In 2005, 2006, he served as head of Puerto Cabello, president of the port. He granted me a five-year concession, for which I had to pay five and a half million dollars for that concession,” Makled said in a 2010 Univision interview from Colombian jail while he was waiting extradition to Venezuela.

Reached by phone, Aniasi Turchio, who has not been criminally charged, categorically denied that he took any money from Makled and said that the drug kingpin comments have been taken out of content from the beginning. “What he [Makled] said was that getting the license to operate in the port cost him that amount of dollars. He never said: ‘I gave that money to that person.’ ”

The fact that he was granted permission to come into the United States is proof of his innocence, he said. “I would hardly been accepted in the process had I been involved in drug trafficking,” he added.

The admiral noted that despite his long involvement with the Venezuelan regime, he felt no animosity toward the United States. His reason for migrating to Florida was that his family was already here and he wanted to be close to his children.

Records show that Aniasi Turchio owns a 3,500-square-foot house near Orlando that real estate company Zillow values at more than $620,000. In addition, he has two other companies under his name: Solcar Investors LLC and Carsol Investments Corp., while his son owns a company called Robcar LLC.

The firm Carsol Investments Corp. appears as the owner of a commercial warehouse whose infrastructure is valued at $1.5 million in Kissimmee, according to the Osceola County Property Registry.

His self-portrayal as a regular business owner in Central Florida clashes with his past as a guardian of the Chavista movement, and even more so with his own words.

“The response that the noble Venezuelan people have given to this [the Empire’s colonialist ambitions] is the socialist revolution,” Aniasi Turchio, wearing a white uniform, said in 2009 during his inauguration ceremony as head of the navy.

McClatchy reporter Michael Wilner and Miami Herald investigative reporter Nick Nehamas contributed to this story.

©2022 Miami Herald.

Visit miamiherald.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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