BOGOTA, Colombia — The money was supposed to support a small army of Venezuelan soldiers loyal to their crumbling country’s opposition movement. But as the soldiers waited months for their leaders to act, the money quickly disappeared.
Now they may have an answer on where it all went. On Tuesday, leaders of the Venezuelan opposition launched an investigation into allegations that their own members blew thousands of dollars designated for the roughly 1,000 military defectors on parties and nightclubs. Opposition leaders say they’ve received reports from Colombian police that two representatives designated by Juan Guaidó to attend to the military defectors actually spent funds on themselves.
The investigation marks an embarrassing bump in U.S.-backed opposition leader Guaidó’s fledgling attempt to wrest control of crisis-stricken Venezuela from its president, Nicolas Maduro. And whether the investigation ultimately reveals corruption, the controversy has left the Venezuelan opposition on the defensive, struggling to uphold credibility after a string of difficult months that saw a failed operation to bring humanitarian support over the Venezuelan border and a quickly fizzled coup attempt.
“This seriously damages the role of the opposition in Colombia and in Latin America,” said Ronal Rodriguez, an investigator at the Observatory on Venezuela at Rosario University in Bogota, noting that the opposition has tried to differentiate itself from the notorious corrupt governments of Venezuela present and past. “This won’t just affect the image, but it could come to affect the income of the opposition.”
It’s a concern that opposition leaders tried to address on Tuesday.
“We can’t allow this. Our message to the country is that we are different,” said Humberto Calderon, Guaidó’s ambassador to Colombia, referring to a long history of corruption in Venezuelan leadership. “We’re obligated today to set an example.”
He declined to say how much of the estimated $100,000 spent might be unaccounted for, but he said it all came from private accounts rather than international funds. Such promises were echoed by other opposition leaders Tuesday.
“We can’t allow this. Our message to the country is that we are different”
“The government of Juan Guaidó hasn’t received even one dollar from an international government,” said Lester Toledo, a Venezuelan opposition leader. “If anyone can prove me wrong, I will quit tomorrow.”
At a press conference in Bogota Tuesday, Calderon said he’d received a tip about the allegations two months ago from Colombian intelligence but that it took until this week to clarify the details and request an investigation. But reports of the possible embezzlement had already leaked to the public, after the PanAm Post, a Miami-based right-leaning web publication, published a sensational story on the matter last Friday.
Rossana Barrera, one of the Guaidó appointees roped into the scandal, denied any wrongdoing. “My conscience is totally clean. I never stole one bit from the donations that arrived,” she told VICE News.
“It’s all false,” said the other representative, Kevin Rojas, by text message.
For the defectors, the news is simply another grim development in their drawn-out saga. Most arrived in February when the Venezuelan opposition tried and failed to break Maduro’s grip on the military by forcing U.S. humanitarian aid through border blockades.
For a brief period after, many of the soldiers waited on orders, expecting that they would one day be formed into an opposition army that would overthrow Maduro. Instead, they were put in hotels where they waited for three months without any directive from opposition leadership, wondering why they’d left their homes and families behind.
Captain Jean Marchena, a Venezuelan defector formerly stationed with the army in Caracas, said he other defectors made the initial report against Guaidó’s representatives, Barrerra and Rojas, with Colombian police.
“They came every once in a while to the hotels where we were, but they always denied that there were any resources to spare. Meanwhile we saw them enjoying themselves in malls and VIP restaurants,” Marchena said. ¨We are totally indignant.¨
Barrera, a 33-year-old full-time architect and longtime activist with the Venezuelan opposition, said she moved from Venezuela to Cucuta, Colombia, in January upon request from leaders of Guaidó’s party. In February she was tapped to support the arriving defectors.
“We thought we could trust our president Juan Guaidó to lead this fight for freedom. Now it seems these politicians are just the same as all the others.”
During a 40-minute phone call, she said that she and Rojas received $99,110 from Guaidó’s government to pay $66,000 in hotel and food costs for the defectors — $12 per person per day for 138 people who arrived after March 9 and stayed until April 22. She said the rest was spent on 110 packs of diapers and 805 hygiene kits, and that she still owes about $8,300 to one hotel.
Defectors were regularly booted onto the street as officials failed to make payments. Barrera said she missed payments as she waited on money transfers from Caracas, which arrived intermittently.
“They never paid on time, it was always a disaster,” said one Colombian official who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly.
Colombia, meanwhile, has been left on its own in solving the problem of the defectors. Last month it assumed the full cost for supporting the former soldiers from the U.N. and the Venezuelans. Colombia hoped to quickly transition them to civilian life, but there are still hundreds under its care as the country searches for funding partners to help move the defectors out of their hotels.
“We thought we could trust our president Juan Guiado to lead this fight for freedom,” said Williams Cancino, a defector from the Venezuelan special police in Caracas. “Now it seems these politicians are just the same as all the others.”
Cover: In this Feb. 22, 2019 file photo, a child holds a Venezuelan flag during the Venezuela Aid Live concert on the Colombian side of Tienditas International Bridge on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)