Early last year, Bulgarian officials discovered almost $70 million had been transferred from Venezuela to a bank in their capital, Sofia.
"And the Bulgarian government decided to freeze those funds because this looks very suspicious," says Estefanía Meléndez, a Venezuelan exile living in Bulgaria. Meléndez is an accountant – and even though she's far from Venezuela, she keeps a close eye on its authoritarian socialist regime and the country's catastrophic economic collapse.
"I have been very activist here in Bulgaria," Meléndez told me from her office in Sofia. And this month that paid off for the Venezuelan opposition’s struggling campaign against a regime that prosecutors worldwide call one of the world’s most criminally corrupt.
That's because Meléndez took a keen interest in that suspicious money transfer. It was from a Venezuelan food importer called Salva, which is owned by a mysterious Colombian businessman named Alex Saab – who was indicted last summer in Miami for allegedly laundering dirty Venezuelan cash.
Saab's whereabouts are unknown, though he's presumed to be living in Venezuela. U.S. prosecutors say Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro allows Saab to overcharge his government for food he never delivers; that Saab and Maduro officials pocket the hundreds of millions of dollars they earn from the scheme; and that Saab then hides the money in faraway places like…Bulgaria.
“So,” Meléndez says with a determined chuckle, "President Juan Guaidó appointed me.”
Juan Guaidó is the Venezuelan opposition leader whom the U.S. and more than 50 countries – including Bulgaria – recognized a year ago this month as Venezuela’s constitutionally legitimate president. Guaidó knew Meléndez was a Venezuelan opposition activist in Bulgaria. So when word of Saab's money transfer got out, Guaidó made her his ambassador there.
Then things got really weird.
“In August,” Meléndez recalls, “I saw [a Bulgarian] article where they commented about a visit in April to Bulgaria from the Venezuelan opposition. So I was very alarmed.”
Meléndez knew of no such visit to Bulgaria – nor, as the article mentioned, that the secret visitors were opposition Venezuelan congressmen, who were presumably Guaidó allies. That alarmed now-Ambassador Meléndez because neither Guaidó, who’s the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, nor his aides had told her about it. So she called them in Caracas – and found out they too were in the dark.
“Nobody there knew about it,” she says. “Nobody was aware of that visit.”
Then Meléndez got a call from the respected Venezuelan investigative website Armando.info. It was reporting that those opposition lawmakers had visited Bulgaria at the behest of Alex Saab – the guy who sent all those suspicious millions to Bulgarian banks, and the amigo of their supposed enemigo Maduro.
"If you know the Maduro regime," says Meléndez, "that's when everything began to make sense. This is how they operate. This is how all authoritarian regimes operate."
So Meléndez started digging. And this month, “I received, let’s say, the document,” she says.
The document leaked to her was a letter to Bulgarian officials signed by the Venezuelan opposition congressmen. It said Venezuela’s National Assembly had ruled that the money Saab transferred to Bulgaria was clean. Legit. But that was a lie: Venezuela’s congress – which is investigating Saab’s alleged government food embezzlement operation – had made no such ruling.
The letter (its authenticity confirmed by Bulgaria's foreign ministry) helped confirm Armando.info’s reports that Saab bribed the congressmen to go to Bulgaria and other countries where Saab’s money was frozen – and tell those countries it was OK to unfreeze it.
"Saab and the Maduro regime decided," Meléndez points out, "if they sent these guys then governments like Bulgaria would say, 'Well, this money looks illicit, but things must be OK because these are Guaidó's people, right?'"
“This is a perfect example to describe the corruption of the Venezuelan regime,” says Roberto Deniz, an Armando.info journalist and editor.
Deniz too is an exile: Maduro’s regime pushed him and his website’s staff out of Venezuela two years ago because of their award-winning corruption investigations. (Last fall they received Columbia University’s Maria Moors Cabot Prize for reporting in the Americas, the world’s oldest international journalism award.) They now operate in Colombia.
And just as it was fortuitous for Meléndez to be in Bulgaria – ditto for Deniz in Colombia. It was there, in fact, that Saab had arranged the travel itineraries for the turncoat Venezuelan opposition members – and Deniz was able to access every revealing airline ticket and hotel reservation.
“It was incredible for us that this was happening,” Deniz told me from Bogotá. “And it’s pretty obvious that Nicolás Maduro knew about this operation.”
Maduro denies that. But his involvement in the scandal did look even more likely this month when he tried to oust Guaidó as head of Venezuela’s congress (Maduro’s security forces even tried to block him from entering the National Assembly chamber) and replace him with Congressman Luis Parra – a leader of that rogue Venezuelan opposition group. Deniz says it was Maduro's reward to Parra for trying to help Saab.
Parra and his seven travel partners have yet to comment on all the incriminating evidence – or on the accusations that they’re opposition traitors. (WLRN could not reach Parra in Venezuela.) Either way, Deniz says the scandal showcases how far Venezuelan governance has fallen.
“We can't think of Venezuela anymore as an oil-producer country,” says Deniz. “We have to think of Venezuela as a government supported by illegal economic operations.
"What is incredible is the role of Alex Saab in the financial structure of the Maduro regime. He has created one of the world's biggest criminal shell-operation networks on behalf of the Venezuelan government, from the Caribbean to Europe to Turkey to the United Arab Emirates, using food, gold, you name it.”
But what could also be termed impressive is how Venezuelan exiles – including those here in South Florida – are helping expose that structure.
"This case has brought us closer than ever to our European Union allies," say Ambassador Meléndez, who was with Guaidó in Brussels, Belgium, last week meeting with E.U. parliament members urging them to levy stiffer sanctions on the Maduro regime. (The E.U. itself recognizes Guaidó as Venezuela's president.)
"They see now that the regime is willing to come into their countries and commit its corruption. They see what level of corruption this regime has reached."
Meanwhile, Saab’s $70 million remains frozen in Bulgaria.