Recently, a dear friend said to me, “the problem is not the regime. It is the system.” I agree. The problem is the system.
Once you are a part of the system, it corrupts you. The system compels you to compromise your principles. It seduces you, captivates you, and offers to put currency bills in your pocket.
It is the system.
Something happened in Cucuta a while ago. There was a lot of noise around it. All sides were accusing each other, and the information seemed implausible and was unconfirmed. I received news about the money coming to Cucuta, how it was being spent, who bought an apartment, the earnings, cheques, the claims of the military, and the ambassador.
Many people are angry about a seemingly ethereal situation. The circumstances are difficult to grasp. However, with a little scrutiny, one knows that isn’t just noise and that the accusations are grounded in reality. “It is unpleasant,” they tell me.
It was a failure. A resounding defeat. There are many reasons: improvisation, misguided handling of information, mediocrity, and pure naivety. On 23rd February, none of the trucks carrying humanitarian aid supplies managed to enter Venezuela. Instead, there was aggressive repression at the border. It was an exasperating repetition of the game we always lose: one of the rocks against bullets. There was a lot of tear gas and the sound of shell casings against concrete.
Nevertheless, one perceived positive outcome of the day was that dozens of military members abandoned the Maduro regime and joined the legitimate government of president Juan Guaido. The figure from 23rd February was more than 40. Within three days, another 270 functionaries were on their way out. Gradually, there was a trickle of military members pledging allegiance to Juan Guaido’s legitimate government.
In February, it seemed that the regime of Nicolas Maduro was on the brink of collapse. Instead, the governments of Ivan Duque and Juan Guaido have a political and public health problem on their hands.
The description of the list of the ‘desertores’ or the soldiers who deserted Maduro is terrible. “I can count on my fingertips the number of decent soldiers here,” someone in Cucuta says to me. The most shocking fact is that not all who are celebrated for their courage and commitment to institutions arrived in Cucuta after actually fleeing the regime of Nicolas Maduro.
Seeing an opportunity for financial protection, soldiers who had emigrated to Peru or Ecuador, former members of the armed forces, as well as civilians with false documents presented themselves in Cucuta echoing deceitful support for the new government of the Venezuelan opposition.
The offer that attracted so many was a consequence of the rhetoric of Juan Guaido’s government before 23rd February. Any Venezuelan soldier who abandoned Maduro would be a hero and would be treated like one. Surprise, heroes don’t starve.
The promises included accommodation in hotels, financial support for military dissenters and their families, medicines, access to hospitals, food, whatever they needed. And of course, the continual invitation to generate a military breakdown would have to include assurances that dissenters in Cucuta would be comfortable, they would have privileges, and would be honored. The had to see the rewards of abandoning Maduro.
The military ended up staying in seven hotels. The official figure reported by Juan Guaido’s government, by April, was 1,285 officials. Guaido’s small army created an awful impression in Cucuta: prostitutes, alcohol, and violence. They had many demands that the hotels could not fulfill. Of course, nothing was free. The government of Colombia was paying for some hotels, and UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was paying for others. The hotels included Hampton Inn and Villa Antigua in Villa del Rosario. Venezuela, as represented by Guaido, had to pay only for two hotels: Acora and Vasconia.
However, at the beginning of May, the reality of Venezuelan dissenters began to get tense. The government of Juan Guaido stopped responding to them. The hotel Acora had not received its payment from the Venezuelan administration. By 6th May, the pending hotel payment was 60 million Colombian pesos (about 20,000 USD).
One soldier in Cucuta told Emmanuel Rincon, a columnist at the PanAm Post, under the condition of anonymity that Juan Guaido’s government had been irresponsible with payments.
Finally, unable to sustain the state of affairs, the Hotel Acora decided to evict the 65 soldiers and their families.
All eyes were on the embassy. Colombian publications reported that Guaido’s ambassador in Colombia, the former minister and renowned politician Humberto Calderon Berti, had sent a check for 27 million pesos that, because of a miscalculation, bounced. According to someone close to the workers at Acora hotel, it was money he was taking from his own pocket. However, the money was in Caracas, where the accounts were settled. Given the pressure of the situation, and hateful and irrational accusations, Berti acted in despair, trying to end the deadlock.
The natural question that arises at this point is what happened with the funds allocated to pay for the hotels where the military was staying? The government of Guaido, the government of Duque and representatives of UNHCR, had agreed weeks earlier on the distribution of the funds and the responsibility that each would assume.
Fortunately, this question is not left unanswered. To answer this question, and understand what happened, we have to go back to 23rd February. The grand failure created a web of corruption.
Representatives Jose Manuel Olivares and Gaby Arellano have been in exile in Colombia for a few months. They were the ones who conducted with greater subtlety and detail all the operative part related to the efforts to bring humanitarian aid to Cucuta. Olivares especially, along with other Venezuelan activists, was for days negotiating the possibility of a military breakdown in the border that would triumphantly enable the entry of humanitarian aid into Venezuela.
Despite the prominence of Olivares and Arellano, their closeness to the Colombian government, their commitment since 2014 to the issue, and their comprehensive understanding of what was happening on the border, both were unexpectedly removed from a critical responsibility.
On 24th February, the day after dozens of soldiers crossed the border into Colombia, President Juan Guaido signed a letter authorizing Rossana Barrera and Kevin Rojas, both activists of Popular Will party, to pay attention to “the situation of Venezuelan citizens, civilians and soldiers, who enter Colombian territory, seeking help and refuge.”
The influential Colombian newspaper, El Tiempo, reported that both Barrera and Rojas were appointed to “supervise” the stay of military dissidents in Cucuta. Infobae, in an article by Sebastiana Barraez, says that both are “responsible for the command, logistics, and security aspects of the military in Cucuta.
These names are key. Particularly, we need to look at the woman Rossana Barrera. She is the sister-in-law of representative Sergio Vergara of the Popular Will party. Vergara has been the right-hand man of Juan Guaido after the Maduro regime abducted Roberto Marrero. A member of the presidential team confirmed this.
Barrera, along with Kevin Rojas, took over the entire operation of what was happening in Cucuta and was in charge of managing the funds to pay for the military’s stay. The warnings were set off when, according to a Colombian intelligence official, Barrera and Rojas began to lead a life that did not correspond to who they were.
I have collected all the evidence. Invoices that show excesses and, several, bizarre, different checkbooks, signed the same day and with identical writing styles. Almost none have a stamp. Expenses of more than 3,000,000 pesos in Colombian hotels and discotheques, per night. About a thousand dollars in drinks and meals. Clothing expenses in costly stores in Bogota and Cucuta. Car rental reports and hotel payments at extra cost. Cash has been flowing — lots of money.
Colombian intelligence was the first to identify this anomaly. Once again: something happened in Cucuta.
Barrera, whom Guaido had appointed, began to develop a network to misappropriate funds related to the humanitarian aid and the maintenance of the military dissidents in Cucuta. According to three different sources, Barrera reported to Caracas the payment of the seven hotels in which the soldiers and their families were staying. Caracas disbursed the fund. However, Venezuela, I stress, only paid for two hotels.
The government of Colombia was aware of another incident related to the number of military dissidents in Cucuta. The official figures that the government of Juan Guido provided to Ivan Duque indicated that there was more than 1450 military personnel. However, a parallel investigation by Colombia intelligence concluded that Barrera and Rojas had inflated the number of deserters. In reality, there were about 700.
Barrera continued in her role, but the government of Colombia was already investigating her.
In May, both Barrera and Rojas, who were responsible for the operation in Cucuta, proposed organizing a charity dinner to raise funds for the maintenance of the military dissidents and their families. Initially, they tried to do so with the support of Juan Guaido’s embassy in Colombia. However, eventually, due to the ambassador’s reluctance, they ended up organizing the dinner on their own. Nevertheless, two diplomatic members of the United States and Israel respectively told me that Barrera sent an invitation to their embassies in Bogota on behalf of the Venezuelan delegation headed by Calderon Berti, using a false email.
The event was going to be at the luxurious Pajares Salina restaurant located in the exclusive Chico Norte neighborhood in Bogota. In the end, it had to be canceled because the members of the embassy informed the other delegations that they were not sponsoring the event. I contacted the embassy and referred to the invitation; they confirmed to me that they never backed the attempt to hold a charity dinner.
By then, Barrera’s behavior was untenable and impossible to avoid. An intelligence source from Colombia told me that he shared all the information he possessed with the Venezuelan embassy and with President Ivan Duque. They had all the knowledge about the material on Barrera and Rojas.
According to the intelligence members, the embassy did what it was supposed to do: it informed Caracas. Specifically, the member told me, “Leopoldo Lopez and Juan Guaido learned everything that Rossana Barrera and Kevin Rojas were doing.”
I tried to contact Guaido about it. I wrote to him, but there was no answer. There was no response from his press chief either.
Soon, the matter was an open secret. Everyone in the Colombian government, the foreign ministry, intelligence, and presidency, knew about it. Although implicit, the intention was that this information should leak, everyone should know about it, and there would be a conclusion. Gradually, it became a scandal that was unsustainable. The Government of Juan Guaido was obliged to act.
Rossana Barrera and Kevin Rojas were removed from office although, between conversations, Caracas displayed an uncompromising defense of the two. There were threats and attempts to divert responsibility to the embassy of Calderon Berti.
Finally, succumbing to the pressures of Caracas, Barrera attended a meeting with the members of the embassy on 27th May. The objective was to audit the expenses in Cucuta. One man, representative Luis Florido, accompanied her to defend her, according to a friend of one of those present at the meeting.
The folder she delivered was small — very few pages for all the scandalous information handled by Colombian intelligence. Eventually, Barrera was able to provide a rather crude defense of the 100,000 USD that she had spent during her stay in Cucuta. Several of her explanations did not correspond with reality. The figures are formidable, but an intelligence member told me that they fall short.
When I asked the Venezuelan embassy if the meeting had taken place, they confirmed it. However, they did not want to give me any information about those who had participated in the meeting in Bogota.
The Colombian government is upset. Very upset. This incident, along with the mistakes made on 23rd February, and the fact that the Guaido administration never notified Colombia of the Scandinavian dialogues have led them to wonder what concept Venezuelans have of an “ally.”
Additionally, although Lopez and Guaido were informed of the corruption of their envoys in Cucuta more than thirty days ago, they have not yet responded.
Besides being responsible for matters related to the military dissidents, Rosanna Barrera and Kevin Rojas were also responsible for handling tons of humanitarian aid that several countries had donated and is stored in Cucuta. A key name here is Miguel Sabal. The government of Juan Guaido appointed him to handle everything regarding USAID.
Three sources, who requested anonymity because of the delicate nature of this topic, confirmed to me that at least 60% of all the medicines that the allies of Guaido’s government had donated were damaged. They showed me photos without sharing them with me.
The food is rotten, one told me, “everything President Piñera sent is no longer useful. It’s there. They don’t know what to do with it such that there won’t be a scandal. They’ll burn it, I imagine.”
They’ll burn it. The fire, the embers. Everyone burns at stake because of the system. The poor and the poorest.
It is the system. It has attracted members of Juan Guaido’s government.
It’s not the regime. It’s the wretched system.
I attach below documents, information, and evidence supporting the article. There is much more information, photos, and documents that the PanAm Post reserves for the time being.
The above: invoices from the Cinera, a hotel that should have been paid by UNHCR.
The above: invoice from Hampton, a hotel that was due to be paid by UNHCR.
The above: invoices from the Hotel Vasconia, of different days, with the receipt number in a sequence.
The above: April expenses of more than 30,000 USD.
The above: Reports to Caracas with unpaid bills. They include accounts of the Hotel Villa Antigua, to be paid by UNHCR; and report an amount of more than 34,000 USD. They also project expenses of more than 15,000 USD and include Hotel Villa Antigua.
The above: Reports of expenses sent Caracas of more than 47,000 USD. They include the following expenses: the hotels Cinera, Cinema Cucuta, Hampton, Sterling, and Zaraya, which was divided between the Colombian Government and UNHCR.
The above: Conversation between Roberto Marrero, the right-hand man of Juan Guaido, and Rossana Barrera. Exchange of emails between Barrera, Kevin Rojas, and Ivan Barrera Nuñez, mentioned in Whatsapp conversation.