The circumstances of this interview are peculiar. On 17th June, Lester Toledo, the Venezuelan government’s international coordinator for Humanitarian Aid, wrote to me on Twitter to interview him in Cucuta. I responded to him that I would interview him, and I value the offer, but I would not go to Cucuta. The interview would be a written one and would be in Bogota (I stress that I appreciate his offer because it is a healthy gesture of mutual exchange. It is the right thing to do)
Three days earlier, on 14th June, we at the PanAm Post published an article about the misappropriation of funds in Cucuta by the envoys of the Government of Juan Guaido. Naturally, the article tarnished the perception of the entire administration of Guaido.
The response of Guaido’s Government was at par. They did not deny the accusations. Instead, they removed the concerned envoys from office. Further, the government announced the appointment of a comptroller, and the parliament has taken up this issue. The turbulent case of corruption has become a unique opportunity for Juan Guaido to emerge stronger, and prove that his government will not tolerate those who deviate from the cause that all Venezuelans support.
Lester Toledo expressed his desire to be crystal clear through this interview. He seeks transparency and is sending a message to Venezuelans, and the world, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
We met in the lobby of a hotel. We were both living through a storm that we had not desired. “It has been crazy,” Toledo said to me before starting the conversation. Indeed, it has been. We are here, in the north of Bogota, sitting down to talk, in the middle of a scandal that has gotten out of hand. The management of funds, the donors, the donations, evoking the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal (TIAR), and Toledo’s opposition to negotiations in Norway were some of the topics we touched upon in the extensive conversation.
The first questions were about him. How did he get to Bogota? How did he pay for his travels? Who supports him or how does he support himself financially? How does he manage to be in Madrid one day and Houston the other? “I arrived three days ago on a flight from Miami to Bogota,” he said.
“My flights, my personal tickets, I pay for them. If it is a work trip, those who hire me for the jobs, pay for my travel,” Toledo said.
The official of the Government of Guaido clarified that his family lives in the United States, but he has to travel regularly. “My residence is in the United States because I am working at the embassy of Venezuela in Washington along with ambassador Carlos Vecchio. My family is in Miami. I am in and out of Washington.”
His work with the ambassador, Vecchio, is “ad honorem.” It does not pay him anything. His funds and his money are from working on “political campaigns.” He added, “I was prepared for these questions. Let’s open up.”
He realized that he had a gift for organizing and implementing campaigns. He was always linked to campaigns in Venezuela. He never stopped, never slowed down. “Well, people say that I am good at it,” said Toledo.
“I went into exile in November 2016,” he recounted, “People know the whole story. I left with an arrest warrant, 86 days in hiding, prohibited from leaving the country. When I left, the first support I received was from the Freedom House.”
The nongovernmental organization gave him financial support of 15,000 USD, which came from a fund for politically persecuted individuals. The purpose was for him to become stable and, with the help, he managed to get his family back and stayed there until 2017.
“I had little savings. I sold the cars we had in Maracaibo. I thought that I would survive for six months until I realized, “well, I have to get back to work.”
He told me that fortunately, he had the support of political consultant Pedro Paul Betancourt. In the year 2017, he joined the campaign of Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador. “I advised this presidential campaign for a period of nine months,” he said.
He was well compensated for his work during the presidential campaign. In fact, he continued to work for Paul Betancourt as “chief advisor.”
“I am the head of Bukele’s organizing office in El Salvador. If you have a correspondent in El Salvador, you can approach the President and ask him directly: ‘Who led your campaign?’ Everyone recognizes that it was me.”
Toledo accepts that it has been hard for him to answer the question, “What does he do for a living?” because it is irreconcilable to admit that he works for another President, for another government, and that at the same time he leads the Venezuelan cause.
He sounded honest. I had nothing to refute him. “It is a career that pays well,” he insisted. Besides, his success with Bukele had opened many opportunities.
“I have a couple of interesting proposals on the table. One is from the Dominican Republic. I gave myself a deadline to join a massive presidential campaign in October. And I said deadline because I am very optimistic, and I think that Maduro’s dictatorship has little left.”
Lester Toledo was late to join the political process that Juan Guaido began leading on 23rd January of this year. The reason: “I had a contract signed until 3rd February, or until 10th March if there was a second election round. Luckily, he said, the candidate Bukele won in the first round, and Toledo was able to accompany Guaido in this new and titanic venture.
Toledo told me that he got the proposal from Guaido’s administration on 5th February. On the 6th, he was already in Cucuta, and on the 8th, he had organized the “Aid and Liberty Coalition.”
Let’s talk about money
What funds support the embassy of Carlos Vecchio?
Look, with due respect, I think that each one has to respond to these questions because each one has their reality. There are leaders, and I put it this way, but we are the elite class. I don’t want to sound like a bad word. I mean it in a sense that the majority of Venezuelans who have been forced into exile don’t have the option to do the work they like. They have had to diversify. And I admire and respect them deeply. There are those who have two degrees and are working as Uber drivers. There are those with two degrees who are working as waiters. Some women are taking care of children.
They’ve diversified. And if I have to do it – and I have a thousand defects, a thousand – but I am not weak. I am a working person. I don’t have one daughter anymore. I have two. I had the second one in exile, and she has never been to Venezuela. If I have to work as a waiter or drive an Uber for 15 hours each day, I will do it with a lot of pride.
I am glad that I had to opportunity to utilize a skill that I have: I am good at organizing and structuring.
How many can devote themselves to politics 100% – or, well, not 100% because even I don’t do it 100% -? Let’s see, Ledezma; David Smolansky, who got an excellent job in the OAS in what he likes; Carlos; Gustavo Marcano, who is a good guy, who is now in the embassy as well… I’m myself. How many are in exile that you say are active, that dedicate their lives to this? We are a small team of millions.
Then, on what does Carlos live and what do the rest do for a living? Some had money and have the money to support themselves for a long time without earning. The others, I don’t know. I went into exile with nothing. I had 200 USD upfront. Freedom House offered me this help while I sold my belongings. I built a little fund and started to see how it would support me until I got a job.
That is the reason I was in Miami. I was working on a campaign, and that was going well when I went to Madrid. The reason I went to Madrid is that my wife was pregnant. The delivery in the USA would cost 20,000 USD. In Spain, it would cost nothing because it is covered under social security. Therefore, I went to Spain for the birth of my daughter as it was 20,000 USD less.
Carlos, Antonio, the rest? Each of them possibly has their own response.
Sure, you cannot answer on their behalf. But what about your expenses? Are they all from your pocket?
Of course. Well, it depends on the situation. When I go to Mexico, the client pays for my tickets. When I worked for the Coalition, the travels that we did – I went to Brazil, to Curazao, I came here to set up collection centers – all those tickets were paid for by Caracas.
At this moment, they tell me from Caracas, “Four collection centers have to be set up.” Well, I will go. I take my backpack and go wherever. But at what hotel will I stay? What flight am I going to take? And it was Caracas that helped us with that.
However, I am using my own resources to come here to give a press conference. I am concerned about ensuring that this goes well. Ultimately, these are our contributions to Guaido’s struggles. Many Venezuelans don’t have stable jobs, savings. They are not earning well right now. Those of us who can pay for everything.
When you come to Bogota, do you have bodyguards and bullet-proof vans?
No. The last time I was here, I was escorted in bullet-proof vans because the Colombian government provided them for my security. When I was in Cucuta, you remember, there was a scandal because of an attempt to abduct me in the hotel. I came here, and some people were appointed for my security. But the truth is, although I will never criticize President Duque, the protection was insufficient.
The first days in Cucuta, I went everywhere in taxis. This is verifiable. The people asked me if I was crazy. I moved to Cucuta with a backpack and went to meetings in taxis. People said to me, “Be careful. The Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) will abduct you.” I didn’t stop. Until one day, I reached the hotel, and there were strange people following me everywhere. I remember that Eduardo Espinel, an activist from Cucuta, picked me up in his van. When we left, a car continued to follow us everywhere.
I had the number of a general who was going to take care of us. I called the general and told him we were being followed. All in all, the car was stopped, and people were detained. I went to a meeting with the military to discuss the 23rd February issue. While I was there, the military showed me a Whatsapp with a photo. It was of some guys who had been arrested. “Do you know these gentlemen?” I said, “no.” “Well, these guys say they’re with you. “With me? I have no idea,” I told them. They told me they were going to check the men and got a search warrant. The military raided their rooms.
My accommodation was at the Hampton Inn. The men were staying in the room diagonally opposite mine. All had SEBIN credentials. They had photos of me and of the car I used to move around. The men were preparing for my abduction. Clearly, the Colombian government was shocked, and they put me in bullet-proof vans with security escorts and provided me with political shelter. The last few days, I was like Bin Laden. 100% guarded.
But no. When I came here, no. The last time I went to Cucuta I was accompanying secretary Mike Pompeo, it was the same. I reached the airport. Eduardo, who is my friend, picked me up and took me everywhere. In other words, it’s not like I have bodyguards and security.
In this interview, we are going to talk about money. About a lot of money.
Ultimately, the issue is money. It is what worries people. Let’s see, in January of this year, President Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, traveled to Cucuta and gave a large donation. The donations were to an NGO, I believe it was Venezolanos en Cucuta, which is directed, if I am not mistaken, by Eduardo Espinel.
Yes, Venezolanos en Cucuta is Eduardo’s NGO
A few days later, and I know this very well, she sent someone asking for that money, and it turns out that nobody knows where it is.
Do we know the amount?
I don’t know if I can say the amount, but it is very high. More than 100,000 USD. Don’t you know about this case?
No, no. I have just spoken well about Eduardo. I told you that he picked me in his car and the guy is like a buddy. Look, I know about the NGO. I have been to the shelter twice. He seems to be a serious guy who is doing good work. But I did not know about this case.
Businessmen in Cucuta have told the PanAm Post correspondent there that they have donated a lot of money, and they don’t know where that money is either.
But to whom?
To different NGOs managed by Venezuelans
Honestly, the only NGO run by Venezuelans that I know of is Eduardo’s. The others that I have visited because I have been to those places are the one at the church, the other is of the European Union, there is one of the World Food Program, there are shelters managed by UNHCR; But speaking of NGOs run by Venezuelans, I only know of Eduardo’s.
And you’re aware that Eduardo has a Venezuelan food business called Don Cachapa?
Yes, yes. The day I met him, he was introduced as Eduardo Cachapa because he sold Cachapas. Then, I went there. Look, I always wanted to understand the subject of Venezuelan migrants thoroughly. I wanted to be there. And Smolansky, who is my brother, always told me, “Brother, this is one thing and living it is another.” When I reached the border, I was given a list of contacts. “You have to call Juan and Pedro, and so on.” I met Eduardo at the food joint and asked him what he does. He told me he had the idea for Casa Venezuela. I went back later, I don’t remember after how many months, he already had a large establishment. They were giving shoes to caminantes. I went back about six months later, and Casa Venezuela had been set up. Therefore, I know about his operation but not about administrative management. I have never given him a cent, nor do I know how he manages the finances.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that amid this scandal, the Vice President of the United States said on Twitter that his country had donated if I am not mistaken, 213 million USD for humanitarian aid to Venezuela. I know that you have clarified this already and you spoke about it in your press conference yesterday. But I want you to explain to me how this functions.
Look, I figured it out. When I was told of my task, I thought it is a big responsibility to coordinate all the humanitarian aid. Therefore, I had to be the accountant, literally millions of dollars. On the one hand, I feel flattered because the President knows what he is doing. If the President called me to do this, it means something.
Later, I began to realize that the reality wasn’t as it seemed. “And where are the millions given in donations?” No. They donated to UNHCR, or to the World Food Program, or to different NGOs. All these donations are listed under the resources they gave. However, they haven’t given the money to us but to the NGOs with whom they have internal checkpoints.
The Government of Guaido has not handled a cent of the donations by the USA?
For humanitarian aid, no.
We set up a committee to honor the truth. It was Smolansky’s initiative. It was spectacular, but he made it happen. David said the region had to be sensitized. The declarations, the OAS, recognizing Guaido are all very food things. But the priority here is the humanitarian aid. As we say in Venezuela, “Let them pay and put money in. If they want to help, let them help.”
The committee was set up on 14th February this year. There was a great event with more than sixty speeches at the OAS under the patronage of Luis Almagro.
The ambassador Berti, David, Olivares, spoke a little to convince the people. There was a video call with Juan. Then the countries, in a kind of bidding, started to donate. “I put 20 thousand, I put 20 million, and so on.” And brother, at one point there were more than 100 million dollars.
That evening, after the event ended, we had a meeting with the secretary general. There, David said to me, “Since the interim government does not even have an offshore account, to receive something, we are going to create a humanitarian fund. And we are going to give that account number to all the countries. We are going to tell them that they can transfer to this account the donations that they announced.”
I put together a plan. I can show you what I have on the computer – there is more. I am going to send it to you because it is interesting how the donations are managed. Brother, once again, I know that it is strange to speak well of oneself. But I thought of visiting businesses and governments, and for that, I made a presentation explaining the different ways to donate. The OAS proposal fit like a glove. Because every time I knock on doors asking for support, someone tells me that they don’t want to give a ton of anything, but they want to provide a check. I send that to OAS. Later, we manage these funds through international cooperation. This was my idea.
Weeks passed, and I began to ask: “Aha, what about the donations you announced?”. No, the sum is zero. “But how is that? Don’t we have more than a hundred million?” And I got frustrated. Because it’s challenging to get the shipments, to keep sending things. Every Friday we could send fifteen containers of aid because people want to give us. But I don’t receive so much cargo of spices because then I don’t have a way to send it. And I had an internal frustration: “If we have so much money, why don’t we have enough to send help?” Then I began to understand how it works.
No, the 40 million USD that Canada announced, a large part of that includes what they had donated already when they gave at the border with Brazil.
Thus, the conclusion: there is no government in the world, no business, no NGO, including the concert in Cucuta that has donated a dollar to the interim government for humanitarian aid.
To this day, there is no money in the OAS fund. And what is the good thing about that? Secretary Almagro who promoted your article can certify that. Then, if Almagro is relentless against corruption, he can say, “No, Lester, here are the ten million dollars that were collected, and I gave them to you.”
Thus, I reaffirm to you, “neither what countries have donated, nor funds from the concert, have been used for humanitarian aid. They were never touched.”
What we have received, and is worth millions, is the cargo that is here in Cucuta and in Brazil.
Why Barrera and Rojas
After an intensive explanation, we went to the root: the divergence and misappropriation of funds designated to attend to military members in Cucuta. The activists of the Popular Will party, Kevin Rojas and Rosanna Barrera are the accused. They were appointed to manage the funds, receive resources, and probably don’t have the required credentials.
Toledo did not know why they were chosen. Finally, he said to me, “these are executive decisions.” He had been sidestepped because his connection to Cucuta ended on 23rd February. “There was a realignment of responsibilities because a new project came up. What was my role from 8th February to the 23rd? Coordinating the donations with the countries so that the maximum quantity of aid reaches us.”
President Juan Guaido was setting the groundwork for the big day. We all expected that trucks loaded with supplies would enter Venezuela. Lester Toledo played a crucial role in the effort. However, once the aid attempt failed, Toledo was assigned responsibilities at the embassy in Washington.
“I was appointed by Ambassador Carlos Vecchio as Humanitarian Aid Coordinator for the Government of Venezuela in the United States. I brought my family, who lived in Madrid. I told my wife to take our girl out of school, hand over the apartment, pick up the suitcases and come to the United States. And since then, it’s public, well-known and communicated, I’ve done more than ten rounds of humanitarian collections in the United States,” Toledo recalled.
Going back to the concern about the appointment of Barrera and Rojas, Toledo insists that he is unaware of the motivations behind their nomination.
Don’t you think it is harmful to appoint someone who is the sister-in-law of a person from Guaido’s close circle to the responsibility of managing funds?
Look, once again, I am speaking as a lawyer. I believe that shouldn’t disqualify anyone. It doesn’t exclude you from performing a function.
If this lady commits a crime, she should be tried in the legal system as we have asked the Attorney General to do. I don’t think it matters whether or not she is anyone’s family member. We judge her for her actions. I have cousins, sincere family members. I don’t think familial ties with Sergio disqualify someone.
And if an investigation is to be carried out, doesn’t this shield Sergio Vergara in any way?
The authorities will decide that. The good thing is that as I understand from the reputation of the Colombian Attorney General’s office, they will treat this issue with urgency and in a robust manner.
Yesterday, in an informal conversation, someone said to me, “Well, it’s just that by taking this to the Attorney General’s office… I mean, Juan doesn’t play big. Juan is getting five…”. And I replied, “No, they don’t know us. We’re going to raise him fifteen! Ah, you want to investigate? Now we’re going to investigate everything and everyone!”.
I can’t accuse Sergio Vergara of anything without evidence. If he is crossed out for some responsibility, it will be for his own actions, not for his intimate relations with someone.
I believe that criminal responsibility is a very sensitive issue because they are individual responsibilities.
Sure. I agree. I saw the whole prosecution thing, they took the evidence, were you there that day?
I met with Ambassador Calderon a couple of hours earlier. We discussed and saw the document. He showed me the evidence.
I didn’t have access to anything. And I will confess something to you: I heard the noise around this scandal from your article. I had no idea.
Some people say to me, “Well, how can you not know? You’re playing dumb… If that happened in Cucuta where you used to work.” I tell them this story I told you that people don’t know. I left Cucuta four months ago! I can’t clone myself there. If you see, every week I’m outside. I’m in Miami, I’m in New York, I’m in Washington. I work in the United States. So I don’t know what happens in Cucuta day to day.
The first time I saw a proof, or a bill or a report, was yesterday morning. We had a long discussion. I spoke to the President two days ago. The ambassador talked to the President yesterday morning. I was sent by the President, who asked me to come here to look for the report and all the evidence.
Well, he spoke to the ambassador, “I am sending Lester Toledo over there. I want you to show him everything. He can go through everything.”
So, well, I’m on the line with the ambassador, we go over everything. And I didn’t even have to give him any instruction. He had already spoken to Juan, it was apparent.
He told me that he was going to go to the Attorney General’s office, that he was going to hand over everything he had, he will talk to the Attorney General will ask him to go to the bottom of the matter.
So we did the healthy thing by separating the two topics: “You attack the whole issue of reporting the corruption with the management of hotels and go to the Attorney General’s Office. I will give him public accounts of the humanitarian aid.”
Did you see the evidence?
Are they authentic?
I will tell that to the Attorney General. Because I saw some copies. I am going to emphasize the following: I am never going to defend anyone, but I am a lawyer. And maybe that is why I see things differently from others. I am a lawyer; I was the secretary general of the Centre for Law Students at Zulia University. I was the president of the National Federations of Law Students of Venezuela. I was the head of all centers of law in the country. My student activism began that way before I joined the Popular Will Party.
As I am trained as a lawyer, I view things through that perspective. I primarily believe in the presumption of innocence. Everyone is innocent unless proven otherwise.
In this case, what I saw, and possibly there is more, is that there is talk about a so-and-so intelligence report that has conclusive evidence. So far, I don’t have the report in my hand. Obviously for security reasons. But no one has shown it to me. What I have seen are copies of bills. So, I don’t want to go to the hotels asking for these receipts.
What do I want, and am I sure that is how it will be? The Attorney General’s Office is going to instruct an anti-corruption officer to go to Cucuta. The officer is going to act with the authority of the law.
With whom can one corroborate the information? With DIAN, the hotels, the Colombian treasury. Then, are they reliable? To give an opinion is to judge.
There are two options here: You go to the hotel, and they tell you it is all made up. It wasn’t them. DIAN can say that all of this is a lie. And if the evidence is reliable, this will result in legal responsibility, and they will pay. On the other hand, although many people don’t want to confront this, there is some probability that the Attorney General’s Office will say, “All of this is made up. The bills don’t match. No one delivered this. This woman received 90 thousand USD – I will exaggerate- and turns out she spent 120 thousand USD; because she has shown that she spent 90,000 properly and that she put in 30,000 more herself because she wanted to help… This is 100% fake…”
The Attorney General’s Office has to decide if this is made up. Then it is up to them to determine the authenticity of the evidence. Not Lester Toledo. I cannot give my opinion. Let the prosecution process work.
What do you think of the fact that fellow members of your party have entirely rejected the idea that authentic evidence exists?
No, I don’t agree with them. I don’t agree with either extreme. I don’t want to accuse, indict, or give my opinions. I won’t say if they are guilty, innocent, delinquents. They are people who have families. They have children who are reading all this. These accusations are not erased. I don’t agree with the massacre of public reputation during an investigation.
Nor do I automatically stand in solidarity with them. I won’t say that they are saints, or that we cannot touch Guaido’s party …No!
I criticize those who point fingers and declare from day one that the accused are, in fact, guilty. And I criticize those who say there is nothing here, the charges are made up. Some elements lead us to presume that there is a crime. One has to be objective about these things.
I gave a statement, and 80% of the statement is, “Prison for the corrupt, zero impunity, I don’t put up with anything.” And the other 20% is “Well, we have to find out.” People accuse me, saying, “You are covering up for them.” No! 80% of my plea is that they should be tried. But, well, everyone hears what they want.
What was Zaire Mundaray, Luisa Ortega Diaz’s prosecutor, doing yesterday while handing over the evidence to the Colombian Attorney General’s Office?
I don’t know him. I assure you that he wasn’t there at my meeting. I met the ambassador to go through the documents. I spoke to Jose Ignacio Hernandez, the attorney of the Republic. The ambassador was with a team of staff from the embassy of Venezuela. And Mundaray was not present there.
Yes, he appeared in the images published by the ambassador when he went to deliver the evidence to the prosecution.
But in what capacity?
I don’t know. I would like to find out.
The embassy has to answer that.
Because he’s a prosecutor, a very efficient one. Besides, he is from Luisa Ortega Diaz’s prosecutor’s office.
I don’t know. And anyway, this is easy. You only have to pick up the telephone.
Who is Osman Huston, and what was his role in Cucuta?
He is a member of the operational team sent by the President as head of inventory, or logistics, of the storehouse of Tienditas. My relationship with him at the time was straightforward, because, of course, he was managing the cargo inventory. I asked him everything about shipments from other countries.
The last time we communicated was two weeks ago because we considered taking things out of the shed. Osman is a crucial person in the operation because he is clear about what items arrived and when they arrived, and he has the alert for expiration dates.
Then, two weeks ago, when the Colombian President and Guaido issued a press release saying that part of the food was going to be donated, I called him.
He’s the one who handles the entire inventory.
Who is Miguel Sabal, and what is his role in the process?
I know him as an NGO man. Miguel is a guy who works at Futuro Presente. He has a very nice program, where I didn’t study, but several friends did, which is called Lidera. I know him from there. But, politically, no…
So he isn’t in charge of anything in Guaido’s administration?
Not that I know of. Not at the party either. And, look, he’s a guy known in Caracas because in this world we all know each other. But he doesn’t have any role in this process, not that I know of.
I read that he is linked to Cucuta, and to the 23rd February operation; and, look, he must have disguised himself in a turban all month… He was never in Cucuta. Never.
Which official of Guaido’s administration works with USAID?
Well, those who lead the international cooperation in Caracas also work on this program. This is a delicate topic, which I don’t get involved in or talk about much. And not because I want to hide something, but because we have to understand the context in which this interview is taking place.
I want to say that Venezuela has a dictatorship that is persecuting its people. If I say that Pedro or Juan are handling the cooperation with a ‘gringo’ government, they will probably lose their liberty the next day. But, no; that is a team that works in collaboration with the National Assembly, and that operates under anonymity for obvious reasons.
Of course, You were there Lester, you were the first to go out there, and it didn’t bother me at all because, in the end, I have what the sources gave me; and that’s why I said that I don’t have to go to Cucuta to see, because that’s not my concern, to say that nothing was lost in the sheds. You said in NTN24 that more than half the supplies were not lost. Can you assure me today, Lester, looking into my eyes, that none of the aid resources were lost in Cucuta?
I can confirm the information that I received two weeks ago when I asked for this report, “the amount of cargo of humanitarian aid that was there when you left four months ago, and today is exactly the same.”
They told me they had set an alert because there’s food that might be at risk of damage. “We are going to announce that we are going to give it to institutions that benefit Venezuelans… What is your opinion?” I said, of course. We did that in Brazil. We donated humanitarian aid without any fuss.
They’ve been taking out the food, little by little. So that’s why I say nothing could have been damaged. Because there they have been warning me, they are taking out what can be damaged.
Are you the one authorized to move what’s in there?
And why do they ask you?
Well, they asked for my opinion in Brazil. In this case, it isn’t a formal obligation. I think they are asking me out of respect. “Since you set up this operation, since you spoke to the countries, even though you are currently in the United States, what is your opinion on this?” I didn’t sign anything, they didn’t tell me that I was the one giving the go-ahead. They just asked for my opinion.
There is a space here in Bogota called PMU – Unified Command Post. The PMU meets here, and there are authorities from the Government of the United States, from the Government of Colombia and from our government. As I understand it, and I don’t want to be imprecise, but the information I have is that those who went to these PMU on our behalf were Jose Manuel Olivares and Gaby Arellano. They represented the nation there – nothing to do with the military, resources, or anything else.
They went there for political discussions, and I understand that in that PMU this issue was put on the table. “Look, we have to coordinate to make some donations. The United States, Colombia, and Venezuela need to be in agreement.” And it was from those conversations of PMU that they asked for my opinion. They had that respect for me. “There are parts of things that can be damaged, we are going to donate them, what do you think?” I told them to take those things out of the shed.
I believe the report. I believe what Osman says. And that is why I invited you. We can go there, do the interview, and see for ourselves. You will find out and so will I because I have not been to Cucuta in months. What I am asking is that they give us an inventory. “This is what came in, on the 23rd February, from these countries, and this is what there is.” They say the same thing. Well, I have to see it. Although I believe in what they tell me and, once again, innocent until proven otherwise.
Why did you delete the tweet that said more than 60% of the aid was not lost?
That’s a technological thing, not a political matter.
I can tell you that it was unintentional. In the middle of something, that message was deleted. I automatically put out a much stronger signal.
To make it clear that, as they popularly say, I didn’t back down. No, no. It was an unintentional mistake, let’s say. This message was erased, we are going to ratify the accusation that this is a lie. And one Tweet was deleted, but in the same vein and along the same line, I put fifteen more. And I gave some live statements later, And I ratified it at the press conference. And I confirmed it today.
Are you sure, then? Has nothing been lost? Medicines that are stored at room temperature? Because I spoke to the people of the Health Ministry- The shelter, I was there, only has three air-conditioned cubicles which correspond to each delegation. The rest is room temperature. It’s forty degrees Celsius.
Well, there are some people out there who handle that with expertise; they have more logistical experience than I do, and they tell me everything is perfect.
How do we deal with that? Let’s check the cargo! Transparency, brother.
I agree. Let’s see. There’s nothing I want more than my sources being wrong. That the aid is actually in good condition. It seems inhuman and cruel to think that this has happened while people are dying of hunger.
Look, the cruelest thing about this – and I’m sorry to bring up the subject because you haven’t asked me – but here it must be stressed that the origin of the Coalition, and the humanitarian aid, because all this we are talking about in the end is a consequence of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis created by the dictatorship.
I am not running away from the issue. But I think some Venezuelans are right when they say that this is distracting us from the real focus. Here we have a problem that Maduro has generated. He has robbed more than 500 billion dollars. The hospitals don’t have supplies. Maduro is indolent. He has denied the crisis for years. We could not get international cooperation. And the day that we had it, he blocked us and plunged us into the border. He is responsible for the fact that almost 19 million people do not have access to the primary diagnosis, as CODEVIDA says. That is the focus.
We are discussing the humanitarian aid here because Maduro created a crisis. We have to remember this every single day. It hurts me that things are the way they are. I wish the aid were in Venezuela in the hands of the Venezuelan people. The dictatorship is to blame for the fact that there are meals in sheds while people need food in the country. We aren’t guilty of that, and neither is Juan Guaido. I want the aid to cross the border. I put my life and that of my team at risk that day to try to make it happen.
I would like to hear more about the Venezuelans in Miami, who stop eating, who drive Uber and leave some cents to go and buy PAN flour and donate it. Of the Venezuelans in North Carolina, who do overtime to go and donate. Of the hospitals that have given wheelchairs and stretchers. Of those who risk their work and their lives to save the lives of others. Those anonymous heroes.
We cannot stain this immense effort because there is a particular case of corruption.
People misunderstand because I used the word stories. Because I said, they are two different stories. That’s what I mean. “Because one story is this, another story is that.” And I’ve been told that I’m demeriting the issue.
Yes, it does seem that you are trying to minimize the issue.
That is not the case. What I do want is to separate the issues. That is the first thing I said: pears with apples. And I am going to expand on this. We can argue all evening if you like about what is in the shed. One ton more, what about the pills, and the temperature…. Of course, these things are essential. The people have a right to know. I agree with that. But let’s never forget the focus. The humanitarian aid is in the shed, and with every passing day, we face the risk that the supplies will be futile because the dictator Nicolas Maduro does not care about his people and their misery. He has blocked the border and won’t let us help the people.
That food is not there for the Coalition. It is not there for the parliamentarians. It is not even there for these two envoys, or for Osman… Everyone would like to resolve this! I imagine that this has been a headache for the Colombian government. Everyone would like the aid to be in Venezuela. And the only person responsible for its absence is Nicolas Maduro. No one else.
Let’s return to the case that matters to us: Kevin Rojas and Rosanna Barrera managed the funds. They were responsible for paying the hotels. They didn’t do it. There is evidence. The military members surfaced in the limelight because the hotels were going evict them. Someone gave them money, and they didn’t pay.
I don’t know if that is how things are.
And again, I don’t want to play dumb. But I like to give my opinion on the subjects I handle. About the things I know.
I don’t understand very well. Is the focus of the report that Rojas and Barrera paid for a few things or is it that they didn’t pay anything? I am asking you because I don’t know. Are the hotels saying that they didn’t pay anything?
They were going to evict the military members from one of the hotels. The Venezuelan government of Guaido was responsible for payments to that hotel.
We need to prove here that Barrera and Rojas received the money to pay for the hotel.
It is evident and that’s why the law is a beautiful thing. It is mathematics. Case A: Acora was not paid. And if someone made the donation to pay Acora, yet the hotel was not paid, then that’s that.
The law is precise.
But the Guaido government had a responsibility to cover hotels, didn’t it?
Mmmm, responsibility in relative terms. And, according to what I say politically, the version I have is that the funds from military agreements went directly to institutions such as the UNHCR. Then they paid directly. It was a snowball effect.
If 100 soldiers left Venezuela, an institution says it assumes responsibility. Then 150 more came out; this institution says it accepts them. And what I understand is that this protection reached a ceiling. And there came a time when UNHCR and the institutions declared that they cover up to a certain number of soldiers. And of course, it is logical. You plan around a budget. Then they told the interim government, “We will pay or up to a certain number of soldiers.” And apparently, the number of soldiers who left Venezuela was about 150 more than the UNHCR limit. Someone had to do something for them, and the President said, “They are Venezuelans in their own right. They are soldiers who accompanied us. We have to seek private help, donations, and funds to resolve this.”
Indeed, as your investigation says, correctly, these two colleagues, these two people, were designated to receive those private donations that the interim Government was going to provide and to pay the difference of 100 or a hundred and something military members who were not supported by the UNHCR funds.
So, did they receive resources for that? Yes, the President has admitted it. Barrera and Rojas have to account for the funds that they received and how to spend them. And it seems that there is a discrepancy between what they received and what they paid. We want the Attorney General’s Office to tell us if these people received money and how much. How did they spend the money? Did they pay the hotels or not?
If they paid and the case is clarified, there are a few people here who should apologize. And if on the contrary, the evidence shows that there are irregularities in the payments, well, these two people will end up in prison.
So there are two clear facts here…
The appointment of Barrera and Rojas and that they received resources.
To pay for this… No, but there’s a third fact, in that case: they were going to evict the military. In other words, there is a hotel that someone had to pay for and they didn’t do it.
Sure, but probably one hypothesis that comes to mind is that they didn’t get enough money. It’s a hypothesis that comes to my mind.
I don’t know if their argument is, “I didn’t get the money that was donated,” or, “I got the money for this, but I spent it on other things.” The latter will be severe.
The anonymity of money
It is 5:43 in the evening. We are in the lobby of the hotel. It is starting to get dark, and almost as a consequence, the hall starts getting crowded. Lester Toledo has already had all the water. He speaks fast like a “Maracucho.” Restless, he lifts his leg up and puts it on the floor. The gestures are abrupt, but not hostile.
Who gave instructions to wire this money to Rossana Barrera?
I have no idea.
You don’t know?
I really don’t. Because, I repeat: it is as if we were in a typical government – which we are not – and I am the Minister of Food. And you are the Minister of Education and the Minister of Culture. They are three different portfolios, with three different budgets.
Then, I can answer as Minister of Education, for the schools; for the educational programs, for the children, for the universities.
My appointment is to pay attention to the humanitarian aid, the Coalition. It includes countries, NGOs, and the diaspora. How do they handle the other portfolios, the other projects? Who pays whom? Who approves? Who signs? I am not part of that.
I want the Attorney General to investigate. And that’s why I don’t accuse anyone immediately. Because I don’t know. Are they thieves or not? I don’t know!
They were supposed to report the expenses to Caracas, and from Caracas, the funds were disbursed.
Yes, yes. That was a commission that the President recognized from the beginning. He appointed the commission. He named the operational team to handle this topic. They don’t have bosses. They don’t report to me.
Probably if I had asked Rossana or Kevin, “What did you do with the money for such a payment?” The answer, with all due respect, was going to be, “That’s not your problem.” Because they don’t ask me who gives aid supplies or how they are shipped.
They didn’t have middle management. That’s important to say. Barrera and Rojas did not report to the parliamentarians. They didn’t report to the embassy. They didn’t notify me. They reported to Caracas.
And Guaido said, “yes, we sent them the resources.” In Caracas, they know they were hit. They have the burden of proof to show how they spent them. So that two-way communication is between Caracas and the special commission to support the military.
Those of us on the sidelines don’t interfere with that relationship.
Where does this money come from?
Once again: private resources.
I’ll tell you what the President pointed out: private resources from people who wanted to help with this.
It’s a sensitive subject. Because if you ask me, “are there Venezuelan donors who want to help and have made donations?” Yes. Even for humanitarian assistance.
Some people have told me that they want to help with humanitarian aid. I said to them, “If you want to help, you have two ways. The first: A fund in the OAS, through a public donation.” Many Venezuelans tell me that’s impossible because they don’t want it to be public. Or I tell them the second way: “Give money to the NGOs. That will suit you. Because the NGOs that we work with in the United States have a code called 501C3, which is that if you give them a donation, they give you a record, and you when you go to pay taxes, they discount them because you donated to a charitable cause.”
In Miami, there is an NGO called “The Humanitarian Aid Program for Venezuela,” directed by Marisol Dieguez – an incredible, honest and righteous guy, super-recognized there. Some people have wanted to give them donations. And, I’m going to provide you with an example: Carlos Carrasco, the baseball pitcher, told me, “I want to donate, how do I do it? I want to give 15,000 USD.” I put him in contact with the foundation.
I never wanted to register the Coalition. It’s not a foundation, it’s nothing. I’m not going to compete with the NGOs, creating one more. I’m going to redirect to the existing ones.
I met Jose Altuve in Houston. He told me he wanted to give a big donation: 500,000 USD. Five hundred thousand. And I can say it because for him this is not a problem. He told me he wanted to donate food, and I replied that Polar had the best food distribution network in the country. “Let’s talk to Lorenzo.” And he gave to the Polar Foundation.
At least my work is in this manner. But if there is an individual who says, “I want to donate 1000 USD to the aid consignment. How do I do it?” I say, “Donate to the NGOs.” “But, hey, I have my family, my companies in Venezuela”… Now, why do I try to explain to you this logic of private resources? If a Venezuelan says, “I want to help to support the military members, but the dictatorship should not find out because they will put me in prison.”
The President is in a very uncomfortable position. He must be accountable, but if he pulls up a whole list of donors, he may lose a few people. I’ll give you this example because dictatorship is complicated. Now, who knows how much money was given and to whom?
That’s why the government so vehemently goes along with this investigation. I imagine that it cost the President God and his help to obtain private resources to give them to these officials, and he is not going to lose it.
We have sought to safeguard public assets and resources, and little is said about this. The President’s international policy has been to preserve assets. All open cash has been seized. “I don’t want to touch a dollar that belongs to the nation.” And that has been very respectable. Because, of course, he could use CITGO, he could ask the IDB for money, and so on! And he hasn’t. He decides to use private resources.
And if donors, with good intentions, who put their hands on their hearts and give you a donation. If any investigation reveals that these two individuals wasted the money that donors had offered to support the military dissidents, you can imagine how they feel.
The President is playing with fire because these are private resources.
The Popular Will party issued a press release saying that they had not received funds from countries or NGOs but from private sources. Have these funds been for the party or for the government?
I don’t manage the part funds.
And I didn’t read it. I confess that I don’t know it in detail. But I think what I understood was that there is talk that the resources given to these envoys were private and not from any public institution. I believe the statement was referring to both of them.
I think the essence of all the communication has been the following: Was money given to them? Yes, but private money. Not to Popular Will but to this delegation.
If there have been private donations, have they been to the Guaido government?
Guaido’s government channeled them, yes.
And being in the government, how do you prevent me from suspecting that some of those donations were from, for example, Raul Gorrin? It’s a concern that people have. They have to know who the private donors are.
You are talking to me about a bad Venezuelan from whom I have never received a dollar.
There’s that bad Venezuelan, from whom I’ve never received a dollar. But there’s the good Venezuelan, who if you expose him, you’ll tear him apart in Venezuela.
That’s why I’m telling you, it’s a very complicated situation. Because it is transparency, which is very important, versus the privacy of…
Is it necessary to maintain a certain opacity?
No, no, no… There are private funds, and those who manage the resources have to explain them. These are the resources managed by Barrera and Rojas. Someone in Caracas gave them instructions to manage them. They have to respond.
Without you having asked me, I spoke to you about three cases (Carrasco, Altuve, and more). I send my reports to Caracas.
Who gives the money in Caracas and how Caracas sends it to these guys and how these guys spent it? They have to clarify. That’s why I’m glad this issue in the Attorney General’s Office. I don’t have the answers to these questions that you and I ask because I don’t handle this aspect of the operation. The Attorney General’s Office will also ask them. And once you push for a public process, the authorities here are going to have to respond. Then everything will have to come out.
But, Lester, you all are our government. And I believe that, in part, the fact of assuming power, of gaining it, also means understanding the responsibilities inherent to being in the government. Now they will be, and they must be held accountable. You will be audited, and you have the weight of the press on you, watching every move you make. So, I understand that…
All the while acknowledging the circumstances in which we are government! Because we are a government where the CICPC, the SEBIN, the prisons, the judiciary, in theory, they are managed by others… I mean, we can lie to each other, because… But we do not handle the capacities of enforcement and the judiciary.
I wanted to, and I told you about Altuve and Carrasco because they don’t care, but I would like to be able to post and make a statue, and hang a medal like exemplary Venezuelans for anyone who has ever donated something. But I know that I will have to do this public felicitation in a democracy. And may the world applaud them.
And I know that, yes. We are a government that has consequences and capabilities. That’s why I’m here! Why should a journalist scrutinize me at all? Well, because we have a public responsibility! I assume it. But, without failing to recognize the circumstance in which this interim government finds itself.
In other words, under these circumstances, it is conceivable that there will be some opacity in the management of the funds.
No, no. I don’t believe in opacity, there has to be transparency.
But transparency means knowing each one of the donations, what they were for, who made them, how they were made, who approved them, in what account did they end up?
There’s an investigation, and I imagine it’ll come out. I am convinced that President Guaido has nothing to do with this. He is the first one who is promoting an investigation. So, well, if there was any doubt about the resources or how much when they were sent, what are the mechanisms, who received them, how were they spent, I think this inquiry will strengthen us.
Did you make a registry with all the donations?
Whoever receives them has to have it. Again: from donations to humanitarian aid, yes.
Why the government of Guaido appointing a comptroller is being debated in the parliament. Why are the concerned people removed from office after the scandal breaks out? Why not before?
As for the comptroller, and I must say this because I know that information, it is not true that this investigation was postponed. The comptroller’s appointment has been under discussion for weeks. And I can defend that case because I know it. Just as I’m telling you that I don’t know some things, I do know about this one – because, well, as a party, I’m part of the Popular Will leadership, and obviously I participate in the discussions.
And the appointment of a comptroller has been a necessity for the nation for weeks.
And why has it been delayed so far?
Well, they have a parliamentary dynamic.
You ask me for a critique, and I tell you: the approval of the TIAR should have been a priority here. A while ago! But, well, that’s very subjective. You have your priorities, and I have mine.
I think that in recent weeks, the appointment of the TIAR has been a top priority on the agenda of the National Assembly. Approve that now! I believe that is a priority. Because it opens the doors to a way out of this disaster.
That’s a priority for me. For you: to have appointed the comptroller. For the Assembly, there have been a lot of other issues that have had to be resolved.
Well, the Assembly appointed an ambassador to Hungary but not a comptroller.
Hmm, well, to appoint a comptroller you need, among other things, people who are willing to take that position. Knowing that he can’t live any longer in Venezuela. So, it’s not that easy. It’s no small thing.
And don’t you think it is irresponsible?
I think that the selection has to be precise.
And don’t you think it is irresponsible that the Guaido administration has been handling money, funds, since day one for three months, and they have not appointed a comptroller.
I don’t think it is irresponsible. Once again: I think it is a question of priorities. The Assembly has an internal control mechanism. It has a board of directors, a finance committee.
Lester, help me to clear this up. On the day this case became public, Friday, there was a public Twitter exchange of messages between President Juan Guaido and Ambassador Calderon Berti. The dynamic was this: President Guaido ordered Calderon Berti to initiate an investigation, and the ambassador replied: “Yes, President. We’ve been doing this for two months. What happened there?
Let’s see what I understand is that the ambassador informed the government weeks ago that he had received information about irregularities. And the President responded – and this is undoubtedly not going to be verbatim because I was not on the call – If you have any doubt about these people 1. We will keep them aside; they will no longer have this responsibility. 2. We’re going to call these people and ask them to go to the embassy and give an account. 3. Prepare a report and an audit, and give it to me to make decisions.
Do you know when the report was ready? Saturday the 15th. So the President didn’t have the report in his hand at the time your article came out. That’s the truth.
I’m not blaming the ambassador for anything. I’m saying it was bad luck that the audit he did concluded on Saturday… For someone, it would be easy to say: “How convenient. That the final report came out the day after this was made public.” Well, the embassy will have its answer.
I can tell you on behalf of the President that he did not have the report until Saturday. And I asked at the time: if this was known, why didn’t we expose this before? And the answer was: “I was waiting for the report.”
Were you gonna make this public on Saturday?
I don’t know when. But the audit the President asked for to have concrete evidence reached him on Saturday, the 15th.
The President did have information. He took action. He separated the guys from the mission. He held them accountable. He sent a report and was waiting for the results of the report…
To go public?
Well, What the President was going to do, he knows. I don’t that, Orlando.
But he did ask for the report weeks ago, and it came after yours.
Weren’t you aware of any of this?
No, no. I swear to God. I found out on Friday when I read what I read.
“There’s a scandal!” I read the headline. I open your article. I read it. Do you know where I was? Receiving Lilian Tintori who arrived in Miami that night. I was at the airport waiting for her, and I was on my phone reading the thing.
Then I read the article and, in the end, as in the penultimate paragraph, you talk about the lost food… That’s when I put the Tweet over yours. And that’s my pronouncement on the issues. I said the following: 1. false; 60% of the food was not rotten. 2. If the article is right, let’s investigate the ones who are responsible, and they have to repay. These two – Barrera and Rojas – have to clarify.
Some people can criticize people for reacting before the concerned officials did. Because I found out and naturally reacted. That’s the best proof that I had no idea.
I found out, and I don’t criticize Ambassador Calderon or President Guaido for not being informed. My attitude was not one of the reclamations. I don’t criticize them because they didn’t have to notify me. I am in the United States, with Ambassador Vecchio, I am not the one to be informed if there was an ongoing investigation.
In fact, in the four months, I told you about, I came to Cucuta only one day, which was the day of Pompeo’s visit. And that day I met the ambassador in Cucuta. We greeted each other, and nobody said anything to me. Nobody told me anything about Cucuta until I read your article.
Do you think it’s a coincidence that everything has accelerated since the publication of the article?
What is everything?
Well, that the audit is over, that this goes to the Attorney General’s office, that Guaido has reacted…
Probably what happened was…
This is two months old.
Yeah, yeah, but it’s all part of the report.
Probably, the plan of action was decided in advance and expedited when the report was ready.
Then maybe all this would have happened the same Sunday. Monday, Tuesday. Once and for all on Saturday.
Your article made the issue public. The report, as mentioned above, arrived on Saturday. From there, the President takes decisions.
We’ll never know why it’s a speculation. We’re never going to know what would have happened if the article didn’t come out… What would have happened if the report came out on Wednesday… Maybe the report would have come out on Wednesday and killed your article. The President would have gone on to say this happened, put aside Barrera and Rojas, and precisely the same thing would have happened. For the rest, not for your article.
I don’t think it is a coincidence. I think there were two ongoing processes. A report that was being constructed, which arrived on the 15th. And an investigation that I don’t know how long you’ve been carrying out – that’s confidential information…..
An investigation that came out on the 14th.
The two coincided. And thus began the what if… I am sure that the reaction of the President would have been the same with or without your article.
Frustration among allies
Lester Toledo was blunt. According to him, the publication of the work on Cucuta did not interfere, nor did it provoke, President Juan Guaido’s response to the investigations. Regardless of whether the information was made public, Guaido was going to be as severe as he has been so far.
But apart from this, even if it has been made public, there is a reality that is impossible to avoid. The Colombian government had been monitoring the opacity of Cucuta for weeks. It was aware of this, and it also made them uncomfortable. Toledo can say whatever he wants, but anyone close to Ivan Duque’s presidency can attest to Nariño’s frustration with Caracas.
The interview is about to end. No sunlight enters the lobby anymore, and people’s noise is unbearable. I bring the phone close to Lester Toledo and ask him about his values, the perception of allies, and their position on pressing issues. He is moved by something in particular, to the point of tears: to speak of the contrast between the situation of his daughters and that of the children throughout Venezuela.
Here is a fundamental issue, which is that of the allies. All this information comes from Colombian intelligence…
Um, that, and I don’t want to question your work, but that’s what you say.
I don’t have any proof, or anything, that there is a Colombian intelligence report. Now, if you say this is Colombian intelligence, it’s because it’s your source. But I can’t ride on that information. And neither can the President.
And I can confess this to you, although I think it’s public: President Guaido sent a letter to President Duque. I can give it to you. And in that letter, he greets him and respectfully asks him for some things. And one of the petitions is, “it has been said in a press release from our embassy, and from what came to light, that there is an intelligence report and that the Colombian authorities were doing an investigation; please, I want a copy of that report.”
The physical report, as such, as far as I know, does not exist. Ambassador Calderon Berti received “information,” and that’s the word he uses. “I received the information.” If he received “some information,” it has to be supported in some report. So we want to go to the bottom of everything.
President Guaido is asking President Duque for that report. The embassy doesn’t have that report. And I asked them yesterday. They told me that they had received information and data, but not a story. So, it does exist, because if it reached you on one side and it reached the ambassador on the other, then the President wants to see it. To this day, that is like Jesus Christ…
Do you doubt that the ambassador has received Colombian intelligence information?
No, no. No. Not at all. I’m not doubting the ambassador at all.
I’m saying there has to be a formal, physical report to support the investigation he received. I don’t have to doubt him. But he doesn’t have the report.
And if he doesn’t have it, what could it be? Did he lie?
No. Well, he didn’t. He got some intelligence. Intelligence officials… Look, we’d fall into a case – and it’s exciting – of national responsibility.
How is it that a Colombian official goes to an institution as delicate as an embassy and claims to have information? If I need to have the origin of that information, and it doesn’t exist, it is already a Colombian intelligence issue that they would have to clarify.
That’s why I welcome the Attorney General’s Office. Because that investigation will also have to be public. What’s the origin of the source? Nobody can force you, Orlando. You, because of your journalistic ethics, say, “I don’t have to reveal my sources, period.”
Who else do you think collaborated with the task?
With you? No, I don’t know. I have no idea.
Again, I believe in the innocence of people’s words until proven guilty. You say that Colombian intelligence helped you, I don’t have to doubt that.
But I’m not here to ask questions. However, if I can take that liberty, I would ask you, did you get a formal, written report from the intelligence?
No, a report, no.
Well, that didn’t happen at the embassy either.
But that information – because one thing is a report and another is information, isn’t it? That information that came to you, and that also went to the ambassador, has to be supported by an investigation. A report by the intelligence agency.
Once this is made public, with the Attorney General’s investigation, that report should appear. And the President wants it. And the country has a right to know. The country has a right to know if no one is linked in this report, or if one person or two are related. Or ten.
So, when we say that we are now going with everything, it is because we want the investigation to go to the ultimate conclusion. And anyone who has embezzled, one person or two or more, we want everything to be known. And we want everything to be published. We want them to review everything. Let’s see what comes up.
I see two consequences of this investigation: 1. Some people are responsible for stealing money, and they have to repay. 2. The investigation – and I don’t want to think that – but the inquiry can say that those proofs and sources are chimbas; they are fabricated. The invoices don’t exist, that everything is legal… Then other people will have to give explanations.
I think it is in everyone’s best interest to let the Attorney General’s Office do its job.
Are you aware of the Colombian government’s frustration with Guaido’s government?
Define frustration. Because what I see is an alliance.
A frustrated ally. Disappointed.
Excuse me, but this is a very subjective interpretation
How did the Duque government find out about the dialogues in Norway?
I personally greeted President Duke at the inauguration of Nayib Bukele. President Duque attended the event. And the last memory I have of him, when we met, was a very affectionate greeting. Very warm. With signs of support…
Didn’t he demand anything from you?
No! No. It was a greeting. It wasn’t a conversation like this that you and I are having.
We crossed paths in a hotel and said hello. I don’t think this relationship has become cold or distant. I feel that everything is okay.
Now, how do allies behave? And I have to judge the facts. We asked the support of the prosecution, and likewise, the Attorney General’s Office accepted our request.
We ask for the support of the Lima Group, and one of the most overwhelming persons in the positions is Chancellor Holmes. Every time we ask for some institutional backing, the support has been wholehearted.
I judge the Government of Colombia against our Interim Government based on the facts. And the facts are signs of solidarity, support, and affection. I think Colombia is one of our principal allies.
How did the Government of Colombia find out about the dialogues in Norway?
I don’t know. Because that’s international diplomacy. I don’t know if it was through Francisco Sucre…
And through the media?
A lot of people found out through the media. How did the Colombians find out? I don’t know.
You can imagine how delicate the content of that information is – and I say this with humility – that I am not at that level of access. I am not in the first ring of the presidency or the office of the President to handle this issue.
I can tell you how I found out: it was through the media.
It doesn’t make you uncomfortable?
No, well… It’s all part of the trust.
I’m in exile. And that puts me in a peculiar situation. That from the outside, I cannot do anything other than supporting the efforts of those who are putting themselves inside. I have two girls, and I have to say it almost with shame, in these two years they have not lacked anything. And I see my daughters eating, I see my daughters with milk, and I see the images in Venezuela, brother, ehm… I’m sorry, but it’s a subject that I…
I’m telling you about humanitarian aid – and not to make a good impression on you – it has hit me in the gut. Because I started in politics doing this, brother. I met Leopoldo Lopez with an NGO. I founded Rescue Venezuela.
I have spent my life looking at how I could feed others, to help others. And when I see that my daughters lack nothing and I know what is happening in Venezuela, of course, you want to cry. And you feel bad.
I’m telling you this because if I’m outside and nobody’s going to kill me or rob me. Nobody is going to throw tear gas at me, I don’t have the risks they face… Who am I to judge them?
In Juan Guaido, I trust until death. If Juan tells me… I didn’t know about the 30th of April, for example. I found out at five in the morning. And I didn’t have an ounce of doubt. “What do you think, I’ve known you for fifteen years?”. No, no. Brother, they are the ones who are risking their lives. And they can have any criticism they want, but Juan Guaido has done for this country in five months what no one has done.
I ask Juan Guaido, “Look, what’s this about Norway?” He tells me that there is a negotiation, some countries, an invitation… He is going to talk anywhere, because of course he wants a negotiated solution for this, and he is willing to talk to anyone if it is for Maduro’s departure… If this is a chimba negotiation, to arrive at something with Maduro in power, it’s negative!
But if you ask me for my personal opinion, on the record, I say, Lester Toledo believes that this goes nowhere. Lester Toledo is pessimistic. And that dialogue and negotiation and that conversation in Oslo go nowhere. It’s going to be a failure!
But I’m pessimistic because I know the level of criminality we are dealing with. It is not a conversation between two political factions. It is a conversation between a civic center, the majority in the country, and a criminal state.
Of course, Of course.
And you can say all this. That’s not going anywhere. And it’s not a criticism of Juan, it’s my opinion.
Now, well, when the President says to me, “Trust me. I know the result I’m looking for in Oslo, and I know why it’s important to go,” I don’t feel disrespected or bad. I’m outside.
Lester, is there any concern in your party about what the Attorney General’s investigation might generate?
No, no. More than worrying, what I regret is the lost time. There is no time here, brother. Every week that passes, in my work at least every hour, this conversation, the trip, it’s time that I’m not paying attention to the Coalition.
I lament about everything. I wish this had not happened. So we wouldn’t have to deal with this. I’m not worried. Zero! If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. I stand by that.
Some people say to me, “Why are you talking to Avendaño?” Because brother, I am an open book. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. I stand by that. I sit in this chair and in any other chair. I am not worried. Those who know they have done something wrong are worried.
I lament that the dictatorship has jumped on this issue. While we wanted to do something useful such as promoting transparency, we have given to the dictatorship, which may or may not have had an agenda this week, an opportunity to say something. This scandal is an opportunity for them.
At the moment we are managing European sanctions. I feel a sense of responsibility toward those because I lived in Europe for a few months and got tired of going to the European Parliament, lobbying and talking about sanctions. But today, what is trending in Venezuela is not whether they are going to penalize Padrino and a few criminals. It is not. The buzz is whether the money was stolen from humanitarian aid. Then the European Union’s effort was wasted.
Today the news in Venezuela should be Bachelet. That could be a before and after in the humanitarian issue. Today nobody talks about Bachelet. Today everyone is talking about this. I very much regret that this scandal has interrupted our agenda. That this scandal took away our time and made us lose focus.
But I’m not saying it’s the fault of the research article at all. I think it’s dynamic. It’s a circumstance that happened that way. So, the answer is no. Not at all.
Do you think the publication of the article was in collaboration with the regime?
No, no. Let’s see, the lawyer has to win as many lawsuits as possible. The carpenter makes as many chairs and as pretty as he can. And the journalist, if he’s good at investigation and he’s thorough, has to investigate; and if he thinks he has a result, he has to publish it.
I don’t see guilt or innocence here. I see people doing their jobs. Yours is that. Our job is to work with transparency. That of the corrupt is to serve time in jail. The prosecutor’s job is to investigate.
What would you say to the citizens, who as a result of this have somehow lost confidence in you? Because there have also been reactions where people have been hostile. What would you say to the citizen so that this does not end up being a torpedo for trust in President Guaido but rather the opposite so that he comes out of this stronger than before?
I will say, don’t let your hostility win the battle. I have a thesis that our primary enemy today is not Nicolas Maduro; it is despair. Hopelessness is wearing us away. Despair is convincing us that nothing can be done, we lost, the sanctions do nothing. That we should remove the parliamentarians and end the Assembly. That we should break up Guaido’s team. Marrero, Vergara, Superlano, Juan Andres Mejia… I have Freddy Guevara in the embassy, and he manages everything. I have Leopoldo in the embassy. Vecchio, Smolansky, Toledo, Ledezma, I made them escape. Maria Corina, who is excellent, but cannot leave the country. The regime’s machinery is to crush your hopes. To tell you that you can’t do anything so that you are submissive to a system.
In the face of that, my message is not to let them win the battle. That when the President and we say that we are doing well, it is not that we do not recognize the suffering of Venezuelans, but that it is a political route where, first, the people of Venezuela accompany us, with a unity not seen in years.
When we say we’re doing well, it’s because we have the international community, more than 54 allies. We have the people, we have the Assembly… A unique route. The end of the usurpation. We are resisting.
And on the other side, the enemy is more divided than ever. With infighting, we have never seen before. Very weak. Maduro does not rule, he is hiding. No one knows who rules there. The 30th of April was the tip of the iceberg of how broken the regime is.
I put all this in perspective, in context, and I repeat that we are doing well. Because we are much better off than we were five months ago.
Then what would you say? That we are human, that we make mistakes – and I am not referring to corruption but to other types of unintentional errors. Of course, we can make mistakes. Of course, you can be critical of what Juan Guaido has done. Of course, you can criticize me. Everything is valid. But I tell everyone from the bottom of my heart, and personally, I swear, that it has never been intended to harm anyone or slow down the process, or that the regime doesn’t leave… I’m not interested in being a collaborator or in having the regime stay. Because I am the first one desperate to return to Venezuela. I didn’t leave. I was pushed out of my country.
I may do something wrong. But it is never in bad faith. Do not lose hope. We have a supportive community. We have Venezuelans with us. I’m sure the vast majority of military members are with us. They are going to react, and we are going to work our way out of this. We have a long way of work, struggle, and a fighting spirit, but not despair.
What according to you, is the most critical value?
It is imperative that you say what you think. I have found myself in many problems because of this. But to be honest is to say what you think. Because I am not a hypocrite. When I have differences with someone, I voice them.
And your article came out, and I said that was unfair because 60% didn’t rot. And that had to be investigated. And I almost had this gut reaction. Maybe someone else in politics will say, “Don’t get into that mess.” Your article didn’t even mention me. Well, I went ahead and said what I believe.
I will never be convinced, nor sold on the idea, that being honest is not a value. Then, as long as I am honest with my family, with my wife, with the people around me, and they know me, I will never lose the reputation and fame of being honest.
Even then, something that took me so many years to build is doubted because of scandals and social media. For the section of Venezuelans who know me, the perception they have of me is good; for those who don’t know me and see four publications, perhaps for that sector, the reality is that I am not the honest person that everyone knows I am. That’s very sad, but it’s part of my profession.
One has to be thick skinned. Value number one: honesty.