As Caracas continues in chaos, and Hugo Chávez’s heirs are at each other’s throats, a once-powerful member of the Bolivarian Revolution’s inner circle, Venezuelan United Nations Ambassador Rafael Ramírez, is struggling to survive.
Formerly Venezuela’s oil minister, he could be key to multiple corruption investigations around the world, including in the United States, where several of his former associates have been indicted. But as U.N. ambassador, Ramírez has enjoyed diplomatic immunity—until now.
Ramírez, a tall, soft-spoken diplomat, is well-liked in Turtle Bay’s diplomatic circles. Arriving in New York in 2014, he’s already served a two-year stint as a member of the U.N.’s most prestigious body, the Security Council, where he firmly, but always politely, represented the fiery populist socialism of the Bolivarian Revolution as founded by Chavez, who died in 2013.
Ramírez was a close confidante of Chavez, but for years he had a rivalry with his successor, President Nicolás Maduro. And on Wednesday Reuters reported from Caracas that Maduro fired Ramírez.
According to several Venezuelan press accounts, when Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza relayed the bad news to Ramírez over the phone Tuesday night, the ambassador retorted that only Maduro himself can fire him.
Arreaza flew to New York on Wednesday, ostensibly to attend a Thursday meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, but Caracas outlets reported he came to do the firing in person. That did not lessen the confusion. CNN in Spanish on Wednesday night cited Venezuelan sources who denied Ramírez was fired.
A U.N. spokesperson, Farhan Haq, said the world body was not notified of any personnel changes in the Venezuelan representation, but a Venezuelan diplomat familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that on Wednesday night Ramírez got an official notice of his firing from Caracas.
The diplomat, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution, told The Daily Beast that Ramírez is trying to use his deep knowledge of the way Venezuela does business, which he acquired as Chavez’s powerful oil minister and, essentially, the revolution’s “personal banker,” as leverage to save his UN position.
“Ramírez has the x-rays of all those shady deals,” the diplomat said, referring to oil agreements between Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, known as PdVSA, and companies in Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua and elsewhere. Now, the diplomat added, he’ll lean on those countries to pressure Maduro not to fire him. If he loses the fight, the diplomat said, Ramírez may flee to Havana, Moscow or even an OPEC-affiliated country like Qatar, where he has a lot of contacts.
Yet another diplomat cited Caracas sources who intimated Ramírez may already be working a deal with U.S. authorities who have implicated him in illegal activities, to inform on higher-ups and receive asylum in the United States.
Either way, by midweek Ramírez, the man at the center of the storm, was AWOL at U.N. functions where normally hobnobs with colleagues from around the globe.
Always neat in well-tailored expensive suits, Ramírez was a no-show at a dinner gathering where he’d previously confirmed attendance, according to diplomats who attended the event. On Wednesday, Ramírez failed to appear at a General Assembly “day of solidarity with the Palestinian people,” an annual event he never skips. A pre-scheduled meeting of a small committee on decolonization, which Ramírez heads, was conducted without him.
The Daily Beast tried unsuccessfully to reach Ramírez on his mobile phone several times Wednesday. He also declined to answer a text message. A spokeswoman for the Venezuelan mission, Martha Vinol, did not immediately return a call.
But the drama surrounding his chaotic firing became the talk of the town in Caracas and Turtle Bay.
“Maduro is struggling to consolidate power ahead of the national election next March, and this is part of a purge” of potential rivals, said Vanessa Neumann, a Venezuelan-born founder of Asymmetrica, an international consulting company. At the U.N., several diplomats agreed the purge was related to an internal struggle among power holders in Caracas. “The Chavistas are all corrupt, but now they’re turning on themselves,” said a Latin American diplomat.
Caracas rumors about a looming fall from grace, including allegations of corruption and secret funds stashed abroad, have surrounded Ramírez for weeks. But he returned fire. In an op-ed in the Venezuelan publication Aporrea he defended his handling, alongside then President Chávez, of the oil industry as prices dropped globally, while accusing his successors of mishandling the enterprise.
Venezuela has among the world’s largest oil reserves, but corruption, the major global drop in oil prices after 2008 and debilitating bureaucracy have made the industry all but worthless. The country struggling with its debt, while streets are rife with crime, stores are empty and medicine is hard to find.
Meanwhile, in September, Ramírez’s former deputy at PdVSA, Nervis Villalobos, was arrested in Madrid as part of a months-long joint investigation conducted by U.S. federal authorities and their Spanish counterparts. U.S. federal prosecutors in Houston, Texas, indicted PdVSA officials on a $1 billion bribery. Additionally, the U.S. Treasury Department accused a bank in Andorra of laundering $2 billion in stolen money from PdVSA at the time Ramírez headed it.
When asked about those cases last year, Ramírez told reporters that Americans have no authority to investigate him. Yet, 10 lower-level members of his team at PdVSA have recently pleaded guilty in cases related to the U.S.-Spanish allegations. And last week Venezuelan authorities arrested six senior executives of Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of the Venezuelan national oil company on corruption allegations.
As the ring got ever closer to him, the well-heeled Ramírez highlighted his Bolivarian Revolutionary credentials, tweeting last week, “Whoever attacks me should think a little bit, just a little bit, why Chávez had me 12 years by his side, but also, when he was dying, he only called four [people] and I was there, so no upstart can come at me.” He signed off, “Viva Chávez! Venceremos!”
The Venezuelan diplomat who spoke to The Daily Beast said Ramírez has connections to the oil industry’s workers’ unions, as well as ties to top leaders in Havana and Moscow, and he intends to use them as leverage in his fight for survival. A lot of the oil money that Ramírez once controlled, as Chavez’s right hand man, went to “buy him good will,” the diplomat said.
But, he added, it won’t be easy. Ramírez ruled PdVSA with little accountability. “It was a black box,” the diplomat said, adding, “Where did all that money go? Who broke the box? They said the money went to so-called social reasons.” The poor state Venezuela is in, he added, is what happens “when you spend more than you have.”
And indeed, after last week’s arrest of the Citgo executives, Nelson David Algueida, a powerful union leader, called for evaluation of Ramírez’s management of the oil industry. “Rafael Ramírez ran PdVSA for 12 years,” he noted, and “the workers believe PdVSA was highly politicized during that period."
The revolution, it appears, truly is turning on itself.