MEDELLIN, Colombia -- Hugo Chávez’s former nurse has been charged with money laundering in a Miami federal court, accused of taking bribes from a billionaire media mogul to green light lucrative currency transactions when she served as Venezuela’s national treasurer.
Claudia Díaz and her husband, Adrían Velasquez, were accused of taking at least $4.2 million in furtherance of the bribery scheme, according to the charges presented Friday. The payments came from companies and bank accounts located in Switzerland to the couple's accounts in Miami.
Behind the payments, according to prosecutors, was businessman Raúl Gorrín, owner of the country’s last major private TV network, Globovisión. Gorrin is on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s most-wanted list after being charged for his alleged role in a $2.4 billion money laundering conspiracy in 2017. His TV network is under U.S. sanctions for its alleged role propping up the socialist government of Chávez's successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Díaz, 46, was a former petty officer in Venezuela’s navy who took care of an ailing Chávez before the Venezuelan leader died of cancer in 2013. In 2011, Chávez named her Venezuela’s national treasurer. She was replaced when Maduro was elected in 2013.
Díaz and her husband, a former security adviser to Chávez, currently live in Madrid, where they were briefly arrested in 2018 on a Venezuelan warrant. Spain’s supreme court rejected Venezuela’s extradition request, finding the couple could be tortured if they return home.
U.S. prosecutors have charged dozens of Maduro-connected officials and businessmen as part of a campaign to root out corruption plaguing the oil-rich South American nation. As much as $300 billion is estimated to have been raided from Venezuela’s state coffers in two decades of socialist rule.
It was not immediately possible to communicate with Díaz. But in August her Madrid lawyer, Ismael Oliver, denied the couple had profited from their positions in power.
Díaz succeeded Alejandro Andrade as Venezuela’s treasurer in 2011. In what is the biggest judgment against a former Venezuelan to date, Andrade in 2018 agreed to forfeit more than $1 billion in proceeds he acknowledged receiving in return for approving lucrative currency deals. The arrangement, allegedly promoted by Gorrín and others, continued when Díaz took his place.
Rigid currency controls in place in Venezuela for over a decade have been a major driver of graft, allowing a privileged few to purchase hard currency from the government at the overvalued official exchange rate and resell on the black market for huge profits.
Díaz and her husband have long struggled to explain their abundant wealth. In 2014, a company established in the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines that she allegedly controlled purchased 250 gold bars valued at more than $9.5 million, according to court records from Liechtenstein obtained by The Associated Press.
The bars, weighing a kilogram (2.2 pounds) each, were stored at a private vault in the tiny European principality available to Díaz and her son after his 18th birthday. A few years later, a nearly identical amount of bullion was sold by a representative of Díaz, with much of the proceeds deposited into a Swiss bank.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/APjoshgoodman