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The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media.

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On August 17, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI in Spanish) released its report on human rights violations committed in the context of the 2019 coup d’état that overthrew President Evo Morales and installed the de facto government of Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia. The 468-page report, based on eight months of research, sheds light […]
On August 17, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI in Spanish) released its report on human rights violations committed in the context of the 2019 coup d’état that overthrew President Evo Morales and installed the de facto government of Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia. The 468-page report, based on eight months of research, sheds light […]
This post originally appeared on the Duke University School of Law FinReg Blog. Convenience, speed, and cost are important considerations for electronic payments. Recent events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic may accelerate these trends as peoples’ willingness to handle cash may be waning. As policy makers try to assess the benefits and risks of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC) […]
This post originally appeared on the Duke University School of Law FinReg Blog. Convenience, speed, and cost are important considerations for electronic payments. Recent events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic may accelerate these trends as peoples’ willingness to handle cash may be waning. As policy makers try to assess the benefits and risks of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC) […]
New statements about Bolivia’s 2019 elections, from an electoral authority who has previously been widely cited by proponents of an electoral fraud narrative, are reigniting calls for an investigation into the role that the Organization of American States (OAS) played in delegitimizing those elections and helping to pave the way for the November 2019 coup […]
New statements about Bolivia’s 2019 elections, from an electoral authority who has previously been widely cited by proponents of an electoral fraud narrative, are reigniting calls for an investigation into the role that the Organization of American States (OAS) played in delegitimizing those elections and helping to pave the way for the November 2019 coup […]

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The protests that erupted across Colombia in April 2021 were detonated by a tax reform bill presented by President Iván Duque. Duque claimed his proposal would raise 23.4 trillion pesos (6.4 billion dollars), which would help reduce Colombia’s fiscal deficit (set to reach 8.6 percent of GDP in 2021, from 7.6 percent in 2020), and lift 2.8 billion people out of poverty, enabling the creation of a fund to tackle the effects of climate change.

But Duque’s tax reform was not progressive; it would have expanded the scope of value-added tax (VAT); taxed people that had previously been considered to be earning too little to pay; and abolished many exemptions for middle class households, already hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis. Colombia’s biggest trade union, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), called for a national strike on April 28, which was supported by a broad coalition of social movements.

Even centrist political factions — the Partido de la U (PU) of former president Juan Manuel Santos (2010–18), and the Partido Liberal (PL) — agreed that the bill would affect Colombians worst hit by the pandemic. Some international critics exposed the bill as “a regressive tax reform designed to finance the repayment of Colombia’s foreign debt obligations and maintain its credit rating.” Significantly, Standard & Poor’s announced on May 19 that it was downgrading Colombia’s long-term foreign currency sovereign credit rating from BBB- to BB+.

The strike soon morphed into large protests fueled by years of pent-up grievances. In April, a report from Colombia’s national statistical unit (DANE) showed that 42.5 percent of Colombians were living below the poverty line, with 15.1 percent in extreme poverty.

Under unprecedented pressure, President Duque finally withdrew the bill in a May 2 televised presidential address. This was followed by the resignation of his finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, a day later. But significantly, neither gesture succeeded in quelling a new wave of nationwide protests against Duque’s government, following previous social unrest in September 2020 and between November 2019 and February 2020. The tax bill had merely detonated simmering unrest.

This third wave of protests was also met by a combative police force that unleashed a lethal wave of repression. Popular discontent was soon directed against police brutality and state-sponsored violence, which added to the general upheaval.

Pedro Piedrahita, a political scientist at the University of Medellín, said, “Colombia’s public security [organizations] are still operating under the anachronistic doctrines of anti-communism, of an internal enemy, and as such protestors aren’t seen as citizens but as legitimate military targets.” Social media networks circulated images of the anti-riot squad Esmad (Escuadrón Móvil Anti Disturbios) violently attacking demonstrators. By May 12, Colombia’s highly reputed Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz) recorded 39 killings by police, 1,055 people arbitrarily detained, and 16 cases of police engaging in sexual violence. By June 15, Indepaz claimed that the protests and its repression, not all resulting from police brutality, had claimed a total of 70 fatal victims.

These violations provoked a flurry of international condemnations, including the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights spokesperson on May 4, who was “deeply alarmed” by events. By contrast, a US State Department deputy spokesperson referred to “violence and vandalism” as an abuse of the right to peaceful protest, but urged the “utmost restraint by the public forces to prevent additional loss of life.” At the 51st annual Washington Conference on the Americas on May 4, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and even Haiti as problem countries for democracy or human rights, but made no mention of Colombia. A few weeks later, when Congressman Joaquín Castro asked Blinken whether he would “consider using the security assistance to Colombia as leverage to stop these human rights violations,” the secretary of state failed to mention any concrete measure to exert such pressure.

President Joe Biden made it clear from the start that his administration would continue to regard Colombia as a “keystone of US policy in Latin America and the Caribbean.” During his presidential campaign, he had curried favor with Latino voters in Florida, including Colombian Americans, by declaring his support for the continuation of a hawkish, conservative, security-driven policy in Colombia. In the Fort Lauderdale-based newspaper Sun Sentinel, he wrote: “I championed Plan Colombia from the very beginning and secured bipartisan support for its passage through Congress. (…) All told, it is one of the most successful — and bipartisan — foreign policy undertakings of the last half century.”

As it turns out, this was no exaggeration. Plan Colombia was inaugurated under the Clinton administration in 1999, expanded under President George W. Bush, and continued under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The 22-year-old Plan Colombia, which was rechristened “Plan Paz” in 2016, is therefore one of Washington’s strongest and longest enduring, bipartisan security-based bilateral relationships. For decades, Colombia has been a major recipient of US military aid and one of the largest buyers of US military equipment in the world. Plan Colombia’s greatest success is the expansion of a powerful military alliance between the Colombian and US militaries, which includes joint military operations; the presence of US military ‘advisors’ and contractors in Colombia; US-made GPS guidance kits installed on Colombian munitions (turning them into smart bombs that allow guerrilla leaders to be targeted); and National Security Agency (NSA) signal intercepts to feed intelligence to Colombian troops on the ground. Colombia is still NATO’s only partner in the region.

Over two decades of intimate bipartisan security relations between the United States and Colombia, Joe Biden frequently exalted the virtues of Plan Colombia and often highlighted his role in cementing them. He has been less outspoken on some of the consequences of those relations and the consolidation of a security apparatus that has been detrimental to both democracy and human rights in Colombia.

Now that he is president, Biden’s declared intention to break with Trump-era policies and his pledge to bring back democracy and human rights as driving forces of US foreign policy suddenly appear incompatible with the current status quo in Colombia. This includes Biden’s explicit support for the Colombian government’s 2016 peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a pledge that also clashes with Duque’s incessant attempts to sabotage the deal.

Iván Duque, a protégé of former president Álvaro Uribe (2002–10), was opposed to the peace accords long before he became president. He campaigned aggressively against the deal in the weeks preceding the 2016 referendum on the Peace Accords, and after he was elected in 2018, Duque was able to make the most of Donald Trump’s total disinterest in Colombia’s peace. This gave the new Colombian president carte blanche, especially as he could soon capitalize on his contribution to several US attempts to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, a top priority for the Trump administration.

Duque found numerous ways to undermine the agreements contained in the 2016 Peace Accords. One of the most effective was his decision to underfund its most fundamental components, including the institutions responsible for transitional justice, truth, and reconciliation: the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), and the Truth Commission. Duque’s supporters in the Colombian Congress have consistently attempted to abolish the JEP or limit its mandate. Duque’s mentor, former president Uribe, even proposed a 14-question referendum seeking to abolish or significantly reform the JEP. But the JEP enjoys significant legislative backing in Colombia and diplomatic support abroad. The International Criminal Court has also been very vocal, with its deputy prosecutor James Stewart calling the JEP a “pioneering system, which can be a model for the world.” Despite Uribe’s onslaught, the JEP has endured.

As for Biden’s concern for human rights, Colombia is an emblematic case: over the last year alone, Indepaz calculated a total of 91 massacres, which claimed 384 lives. In March 2021, the UN Verification Mission in Colombia reported that 262 former FARC combatants, signatories to the peace deal, had been killed after signing the 2016 accords, despite the fact that one of the deal’s key government commitments is the duty to provide security protection to former combatants.The JEP has reiterated its serious concern that “the efforts of the Government and other state entities to avoid new assassinations of ex combatants of the FARC-EP are insufficient.”

In addition, and in order to appear tough on drugs for domestic audiences, Trump pressured Colombia to step up its efforts to eradicate coca growing by whatever means. “You’re going to have to spray,” he said, referring to the resumption of aerial spraying of glyphosate (considered potentially carcinogenic by the World Health Organization in 2015). Duque would have been more than happy to oblige, but was constrained by Colombia’s constitutional court, which refused to reverse the partial ban on glyphosate until certain conditions had been met. Many political and social actors are opposed to aerial spraying, which would also violate a key part of the 2016 peace accord. On April 12 , despite protests by dozens of organizations, Duque finally issued a decree allowing spraying to resume, while promising to keep it within the limits set by the constitutional court.

Duque’s strategy has been to try and convince the US government that the recent increase in drug production in Colombia is a result of the permissiveness of the peace deal. But if criminal organizations, including Mexican drug cartels, have made important inroads into Colombia, it is largely due to the Colombian government’s own failure to fill the vacuum left by the guerrillas. Duque’s insistence on forced coca eradication, which encourages producers to seek protection from criminal organizations, and the government’s neglect of the crop substitution program agreed to in the peace deal have also been major factors in the failure to reduce illicit coca production.

Duque also pushed for an end to negotiations with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), for a peace deal with the guerrillas that his predecessor had not yet managed to seal. Duque had first refused to send emissaries to attend talks in Havana. Then, in January 2019, the ELN carried out the biggest attack in Bogota since 2003, when it bombed a police academy, causing 23 deaths. The resulting national outrage offered Duque the motive he was waiting for to put an end to the talks. He demanded that Cuba, the host country for the negotiations, hand over members of the ELN delegation so that they could be tried for terrorism in Colombia. Cuba refused on the grounds that this would violate the negotiation protocol signed by all parties. But Cuba’s refusal, which was backed by Norway, a guarantor of the peace talks, prompted Trump to put the island back on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism (Obama had removed Cuba from the list in 2015). Duque’s extradition request thus played into Trump’s hands for his presidential campaign in Florida, where many voters still endorse harsh measures against the Cuban government.

The Duque-Trump relationship ran deep. Duque’s Centro Democrático party overtly supported Trump’s reelection bid. Former president Uribe participated in campaign events, drilling the message of the threat of spreading “Castro-Chavismo.” while Florida Republicans warned that the US could fall prey to “socialism.” This prompted the US ambassador in Bogotá, Philip Goldberg, to Tweet: “The success of US-Colombia relations over many years has been based on bipartisan support … I urge all Colombian politicians to refrain from involvement in US elections.” (Fresh from its success in Florida, the Colombian far right would later intervene in the 2021 Ecuadorian presidential elections to prevent leftwing contender Andrés Arauz from securing a victory.)

Some of Biden’s natural allies, such as mainstream human rights organizations and think tanks critical of Duque’s erosion of peace and his brutal response to the recent social protests, will push him to change course in Colombia. Various Democrats in the US Congress are also increasingly active. In July 2020, 94 Democratic members of the House of Representatives signed an open letter to then secretary of state Mike Pompeo expressing their great concern for the state of Colombia’s peace process. Some of them have publicly denounced the repression of the recent protests, including Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), who refused to treat the anti-protest violence as a new and isolated phenomenon, denouncing instead an ongoing and “disturbing pattern of excessive use of force, killings and human rights violations against protestors in Nov 2019, Sept 2020 & April-May 2021.”

Joe Biden may find that he has spelled out irreconcilable policies. If democracy and human rights are indeed the pillars of his administration’s new relationship with Latin America, then it is clear that the current US relationship with Colombia cannot remain intact.

Duque’s government, meanwhile, will continue to portray protests as part of an international conspiracy. Colombia’s foreign minister Claudia Blum, who has since resigned, released an English language video in which she claimed “Senator [Gustavo] Petro [a likely presidential candidate in 2022] with the help of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and narco-terrorist groups have taken advantage of this situation and have organized these premeditated urban terrorist attacks, paying people to go to the streets to terrorize and vandalize the cities.”

Duque will want to convince Biden that he is the US’s most committed and dependable asset where it matters: overthrowing Maduro and fighting “narco-guerrillas.” He will also fiercely resist any negotiated outcome to the Venezuelan crisis.

The protests that erupted across Colombia in April 2021 were detonated by a tax reform bill presented by President Iván Duque. Duque claimed his proposal would raise 23.4 trillion pesos (6.4 billion dollars), which would help reduce Colombia’s fiscal deficit (set to reach 8.6 percent of GDP in 2021, from 7.6 percent in 2020), and lift 2.8 billion people out of poverty, enabling the creation of a fund to tackle the effects of climate change.

But Duque’s tax reform was not progressive; it would have expanded the scope of value-added tax (VAT); taxed people that had previously been considered to be earning too little to pay; and abolished many exemptions for middle class households, already hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis. Colombia’s biggest trade union, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), called for a national strike on April 28, which was supported by a broad coalition of social movements.

Even centrist political factions — the Partido de la U (PU) of former president Juan Manuel Santos (2010–18), and the Partido Liberal (PL) — agreed that the bill would affect Colombians worst hit by the pandemic. Some international critics exposed the bill as “a regressive tax reform designed to finance the repayment of Colombia’s foreign debt obligations and maintain its credit rating.” Significantly, Standard & Poor’s announced on May 19 that it was downgrading Colombia’s long-term foreign currency sovereign credit rating from BBB- to BB+.

The strike soon morphed into large protests fueled by years of pent-up grievances. In April, a report from Colombia’s national statistical unit (DANE) showed that 42.5 percent of Colombians were living below the poverty line, with 15.1 percent in extreme poverty.

Under unprecedented pressure, President Duque finally withdrew the bill in a May 2 televised presidential address. This was followed by the resignation of his finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, a day later. But significantly, neither gesture succeeded in quelling a new wave of nationwide protests against Duque’s government, following previous social unrest in September 2020 and between November 2019 and February 2020. The tax bill had merely detonated simmering unrest.

This third wave of protests was also met by a combative police force that unleashed a lethal wave of repression. Popular discontent was soon directed against police brutality and state-sponsored violence, which added to the general upheaval.

Pedro Piedrahita, a political scientist at the University of Medellín, said, “Colombia’s public security [organizations] are still operating under the anachronistic doctrines of anti-communism, of an internal enemy, and as such protestors aren’t seen as citizens but as legitimate military targets.” Social media networks circulated images of the anti-riot squad Esmad (Escuadrón Móvil Anti Disturbios) violently attacking demonstrators. By May 12, Colombia’s highly reputed Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz) recorded 39 killings by police, 1,055 people arbitrarily detained, and 16 cases of police engaging in sexual violence. By June 15, Indepaz claimed that the protests and its repression, not all resulting from police brutality, had claimed a total of 70 fatal victims.

These violations provoked a flurry of international condemnations, including the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights spokesperson on May 4, who was “deeply alarmed” by events. By contrast, a US State Department deputy spokesperson referred to “violence and vandalism” as an abuse of the right to peaceful protest, but urged the “utmost restraint by the public forces to prevent additional loss of life.” At the 51st annual Washington Conference on the Americas on May 4, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and even Haiti as problem countries for democracy or human rights, but made no mention of Colombia. A few weeks later, when Congressman Joaquín Castro asked Blinken whether he would “consider using the security assistance to Colombia as leverage to stop these human rights violations,” the secretary of state failed to mention any concrete measure to exert such pressure.

President Joe Biden made it clear from the start that his administration would continue to regard Colombia as a “keystone of US policy in Latin America and the Caribbean.” During his presidential campaign, he had curried favor with Latino voters in Florida, including Colombian Americans, by declaring his support for the continuation of a hawkish, conservative, security-driven policy in Colombia. In the Fort Lauderdale-based newspaper Sun Sentinel, he wrote: “I championed Plan Colombia from the very beginning and secured bipartisan support for its passage through Congress. (…) All told, it is one of the most successful — and bipartisan — foreign policy undertakings of the last half century.”

As it turns out, this was no exaggeration. Plan Colombia was inaugurated under the Clinton administration in 1999, expanded under President George W. Bush, and continued under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The 22-year-old Plan Colombia, which was rechristened “Plan Paz” in 2016, is therefore one of Washington’s strongest and longest enduring, bipartisan security-based bilateral relationships. For decades, Colombia has been a major recipient of US military aid and one of the largest buyers of US military equipment in the world. Plan Colombia’s greatest success is the expansion of a powerful military alliance between the Colombian and US militaries, which includes joint military operations; the presence of US military ‘advisors’ and contractors in Colombia; US-made GPS guidance kits installed on Colombian munitions (turning them into smart bombs that allow guerrilla leaders to be targeted); and National Security Agency (NSA) signal intercepts to feed intelligence to Colombian troops on the ground. Colombia is still NATO’s only partner in the region.

Over two decades of intimate bipartisan security relations between the United States and Colombia, Joe Biden frequently exalted the virtues of Plan Colombia and often highlighted his role in cementing them. He has been less outspoken on some of the consequences of those relations and the consolidation of a security apparatus that has been detrimental to both democracy and human rights in Colombia.

Now that he is president, Biden’s declared intention to break with Trump-era policies and his pledge to bring back democracy and human rights as driving forces of US foreign policy suddenly appear incompatible with the current status quo in Colombia. This includes Biden’s explicit support for the Colombian government’s 2016 peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a pledge that also clashes with Duque’s incessant attempts to sabotage the deal.

Iván Duque, a protégé of former president Álvaro Uribe (2002–10), was opposed to the peace accords long before he became president. He campaigned aggressively against the deal in the weeks preceding the 2016 referendum on the Peace Accords, and after he was elected in 2018, Duque was able to make the most of Donald Trump’s total disinterest in Colombia’s peace. This gave the new Colombian president carte blanche, especially as he could soon capitalize on his contribution to several US attempts to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, a top priority for the Trump administration.

Duque found numerous ways to undermine the agreements contained in the 2016 Peace Accords. One of the most effective was his decision to underfund its most fundamental components, including the institutions responsible for transitional justice, truth, and reconciliation: the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), and the Truth Commission. Duque’s supporters in the Colombian Congress have consistently attempted to abolish the JEP or limit its mandate. Duque’s mentor, former president Uribe, even proposed a 14-question referendum seeking to abolish or significantly reform the JEP. But the JEP enjoys significant legislative backing in Colombia and diplomatic support abroad. The International Criminal Court has also been very vocal, with its deputy prosecutor James Stewart calling the JEP a “pioneering system, which can be a model for the world.” Despite Uribe’s onslaught, the JEP has endured.

As for Biden’s concern for human rights, Colombia is an emblematic case: over the last year alone, Indepaz calculated a total of 91 massacres, which claimed 384 lives. In March 2021, the UN Verification Mission in Colombia reported that 262 former FARC combatants, signatories to the peace deal, had been killed after signing the 2016 accords, despite the fact that one of the deal’s key government commitments is the duty to provide security protection to former combatants.The JEP has reiterated its serious concern that “the efforts of the Government and other state entities to avoid new assassinations of ex combatants of the FARC-EP are insufficient.”

In addition, and in order to appear tough on drugs for domestic audiences, Trump pressured Colombia to step up its efforts to eradicate coca growing by whatever means. “You’re going to have to spray,” he said, referring to the resumption of aerial spraying of glyphosate (considered potentially carcinogenic by the World Health Organization in 2015). Duque would have been more than happy to oblige, but was constrained by Colombia’s constitutional court, which refused to reverse the partial ban on glyphosate until certain conditions had been met. Many political and social actors are opposed to aerial spraying, which would also violate a key part of the 2016 peace accord. On April 12 , despite protests by dozens of organizations, Duque finally issued a decree allowing spraying to resume, while promising to keep it within the limits set by the constitutional court.

Duque’s strategy has been to try and convince the US government that the recent increase in drug production in Colombia is a result of the permissiveness of the peace deal. But if criminal organizations, including Mexican drug cartels, have made important inroads into Colombia, it is largely due to the Colombian government’s own failure to fill the vacuum left by the guerrillas. Duque’s insistence on forced coca eradication, which encourages producers to seek protection from criminal organizations, and the government’s neglect of the crop substitution program agreed to in the peace deal have also been major factors in the failure to reduce illicit coca production.

Duque also pushed for an end to negotiations with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), for a peace deal with the guerrillas that his predecessor had not yet managed to seal. Duque had first refused to send emissaries to attend talks in Havana. Then, in January 2019, the ELN carried out the biggest attack in Bogota since 2003, when it bombed a police academy, causing 23 deaths. The resulting national outrage offered Duque the motive he was waiting for to put an end to the talks. He demanded that Cuba, the host country for the negotiations, hand over members of the ELN delegation so that they could be tried for terrorism in Colombia. Cuba refused on the grounds that this would violate the negotiation protocol signed by all parties. But Cuba’s refusal, which was backed by Norway, a guarantor of the peace talks, prompted Trump to put the island back on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism (Obama had removed Cuba from the list in 2015). Duque’s extradition request thus played into Trump’s hands for his presidential campaign in Florida, where many voters still endorse harsh measures against the Cuban government.

The Duque-Trump relationship ran deep. Duque’s Centro Democrático party overtly supported Trump’s reelection bid. Former president Uribe participated in campaign events, drilling the message of the threat of spreading “Castro-Chavismo.” while Florida Republicans warned that the US could fall prey to “socialism.” This prompted the US ambassador in Bogotá, Philip Goldberg, to Tweet: “The success of US-Colombia relations over many years has been based on bipartisan support … I urge all Colombian politicians to refrain from involvement in US elections.” (Fresh from its success in Florida, the Colombian far right would later intervene in the 2021 Ecuadorian presidential elections to prevent leftwing contender Andrés Arauz from securing a victory.)

Some of Biden’s natural allies, such as mainstream human rights organizations and think tanks critical of Duque’s erosion of peace and his brutal response to the recent social protests, will push him to change course in Colombia. Various Democrats in the US Congress are also increasingly active. In July 2020, 94 Democratic members of the House of Representatives signed an open letter to then secretary of state Mike Pompeo expressing their great concern for the state of Colombia’s peace process. Some of them have publicly denounced the repression of the recent protests, including Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), who refused to treat the anti-protest violence as a new and isolated phenomenon, denouncing instead an ongoing and “disturbing pattern of excessive use of force, killings and human rights violations against protestors in Nov 2019, Sept 2020 & April-May 2021.”

Joe Biden may find that he has spelled out irreconcilable policies. If democracy and human rights are indeed the pillars of his administration’s new relationship with Latin America, then it is clear that the current US relationship with Colombia cannot remain intact.

Duque’s government, meanwhile, will continue to portray protests as part of an international conspiracy. Colombia’s foreign minister Claudia Blum, who has since resigned, released an English language video in which she claimed “Senator [Gustavo] Petro [a likely presidential candidate in 2022] with the help of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and narco-terrorist groups have taken advantage of this situation and have organized these premeditated urban terrorist attacks, paying people to go to the streets to terrorize and vandalize the cities.”

Duque will want to convince Biden that he is the US’s most committed and dependable asset where it matters: overthrowing Maduro and fighting “narco-guerrillas.” He will also fiercely resist any negotiated outcome to the Venezuelan crisis.

On June 5, President Nayib Bukele announced his plans to make El Salvador the world’s first country to accept Bitcoin, a popular digital cryptocurrency, as a form of legal tender. The nation’s legislative assembly, under the majority control of Bukele’s New Ideas party, passed the bill just three days later. Under the new legislation, Bitcoin must be accepted as payment by all private firms and by the nation’s tax authorities. The move puts El Salvador into uncharted territory, posing serious risks that likely outweigh any potential benefits. However, prudent economic policy does not seem to be the purpose of the decision. Instead, Bitcoinization has in part been a successful publicity stunt, expanding the massive online following that President Bukele himself acknowledges is vital to his political power.

Elected in 2019, Bukele frames himself as an opponent of the traditional Salvadoran elite. He maintains an approval rating of roughly 90 percent, in large part by attributing a recent drop in the homicide rate (which began before he took office) to his harsh anti-crime policies. Another key to his popularity is his highly active presence on Twitter. Bukele, who previously worked at his father’s public relations firm, uses his Twitter profile to share news, memes, and posts supportive of his leadership with his 2.7 million followers — one of the largest Twitter followings of any national head of state when weighted by population.

Bukele’s carefully crafted public image, bolstered by paid trolls and lobbyists defending him, allows him to obscure the ways in which his rule has been similar to the corrupt Salvadoran elites he claims to oppose. In 2020, when the legislature objected to his proposal for a loan that would fund further police militarization, he sent soldiers to Congress to intimidate the lawmakers. This May, immediately after his party won a supermajority of the legislature’s seats, he replaced the attorney general and five judges on the Supreme Court in a move that the court itself declared unconstitutional. Most have recognized the move as a power grab; Bukele has termed it a “house cleaning.” While he claims these moves are necessary for fighting entrenched corruption, the US State Department has accused a number of Bukele’s close associates of being corrupt.

Enter Bitcoin. Advocates of the popular online asset argue that its digital and decentralized nature make it an ideal alternative to traditional currencies like the US dollar (USD). El Salvador, which uses the USD as its primary currency, will now serve as a case study in whether the cryptocurrency can live up to its promise.

Despite Bukele’s claim that the plan “looks bulletproof,” there are several reasons to doubt the wisdom of Bitcoinization as an economic policy. While one argument in support has been that this new payment method could expand remittances from Salvadorans working abroad — a financial flow that makes up a fifth of the Salvadoran economy — the benefits may be overstated. According to a survey by the national Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 82.5 percent of Salvadorans say they have no interest in receiving remittances through Bitcoin. Small Bitcoin transfers to the country did jump after the law’s introduction, but El Salvador’s limited Internet access and low remittance prices suggest they’ll continue to struggle to compete with USD transfers. Bitcoin ATMs, meant to help solve this issue, can charge fees which make them no better than regular banks to many Salvadorans. 

Others argue that the law could grant the Salvadoran economy more autonomy from the USD by introducing a secondary currency, allowing the government more room for independent policy-making. But, despite the term “cryptocurrency,” studies suggest Bitcoin “does not work as a currency due to its excess volatility” — often 10 times higher than major exchange rates. Indeed, the use of Bitcoin to dodge capital controls may even weaken the Salvadoran government’s options in deciding economic policy.

The risks, on the other hand, are significant. The law obligates the government to provide “automatic and instant convertibility from Bitcoin to USD,” meaning they must provide USD in exchange for Bitcoin out of their own currency reserves. Bitcoin is too unstable to function as a reserve asset, so each swap will appear on the books as a reduction in the nation’s reserves. The IMF has raised some concerns amid their negotiations with El Salvador for a new loan agreement; more worryingly, this system may also tie the nation’s macroeconomic stability to the value of Bitcoin. In addition, cryptocurrency has the potential to massively accelerate money laundering (a problem that Bukele is allegedly familiar with).

Bukele has argued, “If 1% of [Bitcoin’s market cap] is invested in El Salvador, that would increase our GDP by 25%.” However, this would only be the case if 1 percent of Bitcoin’s value were invested in the country without any increase in the country’s Bitcoin production, an extremely energy-intensive process. On the day Bukele made this argument, shifting just 1 percent of Bitcoin’s energy costs to El Salvador would increase the country’s 2019 energy use by over 17 percent. Bukele plans to meet this new demand through the country’s state-owned geothermal power company. Though he claims at least one new well has already been dug for the task, the scale of new energy demand prompted by new Bitcoin production raises the prospect that higher energy prices may ultimately be shifted on to the public.

Only about 10 percent of adults in El Salvador are on Twitter, but Salvadoran journalists have noted that the country’s non-digital media often amplifies Bukele’s statements and spreads them widely among the population. As Bukele himself put it: “You put it on Twitter, and then media takes it from there…” This makes his Twitter account a powerful platform for him to communicate to voters, translating a stronger presence online into greater media coverage. Regardless of Bukele’s intentions behind Bitcoinization, the effect on his social media presence is undeniable. In the week following the Bitcoin law’s introduction, Bukele gained over 120,000 new Twitter followers — more than he had gained over the prior 10 weeks combined.

In the four days between the law’s announcement and its passage, Bukele Tweeted or Retweeted over 160 posts referencing his decision, many of which were praise for him from Bitcoin fans. One Retweeted user called him “the smartest president in existence right now.” After Retweeting a popular Bitcoin blogger who suggested that Bukele add laser eyes to his profile picture (a meme signifying that a user is a fan of Bitcoin), he did so, twice; the President of the Legislative Assembly joined in as well. Alongside the more substantial effects that may result from Bitcoinization, it has brought a major new wave of positive publicity to Bukele’s presidency.

The content of the social media response was at least as important as the scale: Bitcoinization strengthens Bukele’s attempts to sell El Salvador as a tax haven for wealthy foreign investors. Justin Sun, a Bitcoin multi-millionaire with 2.9 million followers, Tweeted that “Crypto investors and entrepreneur [sic] will start to move to El Salvador!” Bukele responded to Sun with a list of what he considers some of the country’s main draws: “Great weather, world class surfing beaches, beach front properties for sale,” “no property tax,” the new law’s exemption of Bitcoin profits from capital gains taxes, and “immediate permanent residence for crypto entrepreneurs” — the second time that day he offered to provide “help” to cryptocurrency investors seeking residency. Sun replied: “Amazing! Packing Now!”

Reading the language used in some of the posts that Bukele chose to share on his Twitter is revealing: “If I could buy stock in a country, I am buying El Salvador,” “Entrepreneurs and investors will be on the next flights to El Salvador,” “This is how a country is sold. This is how foreign investment is attracted,” and so on. One Retweet showed off a spike in Google searches for “El Salvador Real Estate.” US conservative commentator Avik Roy, whom Bukele Retweeted multiple times, argued,“if [Bukele] is successful, El Salvador may become best known as a destination of emigrants *from* the United States.” Perhaps the most interesting Retweet didn’t explicitly praise the move: “Doesn’t this El Salvador News also create a tax haven…[?]” 

Bitcoin’s large and dedicated online following is perfect for generating press coverage — a fact likely known to a tech-savvy former publicist like Bukele. Even better, the fact that much of the community identifies as self-styled entrepreneurs and investors supports a narrative of Bukele being the first world leader to tap a new market for foreign investment, strengthening the image of his party as a source of “New Ideas.”

Of course, the Bitcoin law is unlikely to attract a large new wave of foreign investment, which is generally driven by factors unrelated to online fads and nice beaches. Even if it were successful, this investors-first model tends to do little to address the fundamentals of economic development: basic social services, employment opportunities, the distribution of national income, and investments that help shift production from lower to higher productivity activities. But if there’s one thing a Twitter-era head of state understands, it’s to not let truth stand in the way of a good story.

On June 5, President Nayib Bukele announced his plans to make El Salvador the world’s first country to accept Bitcoin, a popular digital cryptocurrency, as a form of legal tender. The nation’s legislative assembly, under the majority control of Bukele’s New Ideas party, passed the bill just three days later. Under the new legislation, Bitcoin must be accepted as payment by all private firms and by the nation’s tax authorities. The move puts El Salvador into uncharted territory, posing serious risks that likely outweigh any potential benefits. However, prudent economic policy does not seem to be the purpose of the decision. Instead, Bitcoinization has in part been a successful publicity stunt, expanding the massive online following that President Bukele himself acknowledges is vital to his political power.

Elected in 2019, Bukele frames himself as an opponent of the traditional Salvadoran elite. He maintains an approval rating of roughly 90 percent, in large part by attributing a recent drop in the homicide rate (which began before he took office) to his harsh anti-crime policies. Another key to his popularity is his highly active presence on Twitter. Bukele, who previously worked at his father’s public relations firm, uses his Twitter profile to share news, memes, and posts supportive of his leadership with his 2.7 million followers — one of the largest Twitter followings of any national head of state when weighted by population.

Bukele’s carefully crafted public image, bolstered by paid trolls and lobbyists defending him, allows him to obscure the ways in which his rule has been similar to the corrupt Salvadoran elites he claims to oppose. In 2020, when the legislature objected to his proposal for a loan that would fund further police militarization, he sent soldiers to Congress to intimidate the lawmakers. This May, immediately after his party won a supermajority of the legislature’s seats, he replaced the attorney general and five judges on the Supreme Court in a move that the court itself declared unconstitutional. Most have recognized the move as a power grab; Bukele has termed it a “house cleaning.” While he claims these moves are necessary for fighting entrenched corruption, the US State Department has accused a number of Bukele’s close associates of being corrupt.

Enter Bitcoin. Advocates of the popular online asset argue that its digital and decentralized nature make it an ideal alternative to traditional currencies like the US dollar (USD). El Salvador, which uses the USD as its primary currency, will now serve as a case study in whether the cryptocurrency can live up to its promise.

Despite Bukele’s claim that the plan “looks bulletproof,” there are several reasons to doubt the wisdom of Bitcoinization as an economic policy. While one argument in support has been that this new payment method could expand remittances from Salvadorans working abroad — a financial flow that makes up a fifth of the Salvadoran economy — the benefits may be overstated. According to a survey by the national Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 82.5 percent of Salvadorans say they have no interest in receiving remittances through Bitcoin. Small Bitcoin transfers to the country did jump after the law’s introduction, but El Salvador’s limited Internet access and low remittance prices suggest they’ll continue to struggle to compete with USD transfers. Bitcoin ATMs, meant to help solve this issue, can charge fees which make them no better than regular banks to many Salvadorans. 

Others argue that the law could grant the Salvadoran economy more autonomy from the USD by introducing a secondary currency, allowing the government more room for independent policy-making. But, despite the term “cryptocurrency,” studies suggest Bitcoin “does not work as a currency due to its excess volatility” — often 10 times higher than major exchange rates. Indeed, the use of Bitcoin to dodge capital controls may even weaken the Salvadoran government’s options in deciding economic policy.

The risks, on the other hand, are significant. The law obligates the government to provide “automatic and instant convertibility from Bitcoin to USD,” meaning they must provide USD in exchange for Bitcoin out of their own currency reserves. Bitcoin is too unstable to function as a reserve asset, so each swap will appear on the books as a reduction in the nation’s reserves. The IMF has raised some concerns amid their negotiations with El Salvador for a new loan agreement; more worryingly, this system may also tie the nation’s macroeconomic stability to the value of Bitcoin. In addition, cryptocurrency has the potential to massively accelerate money laundering (a problem that Bukele is allegedly familiar with).

Bukele has argued, “If 1% of [Bitcoin’s market cap] is invested in El Salvador, that would increase our GDP by 25%.” However, this would only be the case if 1 percent of Bitcoin’s value were invested in the country without any increase in the country’s Bitcoin production, an extremely energy-intensive process. On the day Bukele made this argument, shifting just 1 percent of Bitcoin’s energy costs to El Salvador would increase the country’s 2019 energy use by over 17 percent. Bukele plans to meet this new demand through the country’s state-owned geothermal power company. Though he claims at least one new well has already been dug for the task, the scale of new energy demand prompted by new Bitcoin production raises the prospect that higher energy prices may ultimately be shifted on to the public.

Only about 10 percent of adults in El Salvador are on Twitter, but Salvadoran journalists have noted that the country’s non-digital media often amplifies Bukele’s statements and spreads them widely among the population. As Bukele himself put it: “You put it on Twitter, and then media takes it from there…” This makes his Twitter account a powerful platform for him to communicate to voters, translating a stronger presence online into greater media coverage. Regardless of Bukele’s intentions behind Bitcoinization, the effect on his social media presence is undeniable. In the week following the Bitcoin law’s introduction, Bukele gained over 120,000 new Twitter followers — more than he had gained over the prior 10 weeks combined.

In the four days between the law’s announcement and its passage, Bukele Tweeted or Retweeted over 160 posts referencing his decision, many of which were praise for him from Bitcoin fans. One Retweeted user called him “the smartest president in existence right now.” After Retweeting a popular Bitcoin blogger who suggested that Bukele add laser eyes to his profile picture (a meme signifying that a user is a fan of Bitcoin), he did so, twice; the President of the Legislative Assembly joined in as well. Alongside the more substantial effects that may result from Bitcoinization, it has brought a major new wave of positive publicity to Bukele’s presidency.

The content of the social media response was at least as important as the scale: Bitcoinization strengthens Bukele’s attempts to sell El Salvador as a tax haven for wealthy foreign investors. Justin Sun, a Bitcoin multi-millionaire with 2.9 million followers, Tweeted that “Crypto investors and entrepreneur [sic] will start to move to El Salvador!” Bukele responded to Sun with a list of what he considers some of the country’s main draws: “Great weather, world class surfing beaches, beach front properties for sale,” “no property tax,” the new law’s exemption of Bitcoin profits from capital gains taxes, and “immediate permanent residence for crypto entrepreneurs” — the second time that day he offered to provide “help” to cryptocurrency investors seeking residency. Sun replied: “Amazing! Packing Now!”

Reading the language used in some of the posts that Bukele chose to share on his Twitter is revealing: “If I could buy stock in a country, I am buying El Salvador,” “Entrepreneurs and investors will be on the next flights to El Salvador,” “This is how a country is sold. This is how foreign investment is attracted,” and so on. One Retweet showed off a spike in Google searches for “El Salvador Real Estate.” US conservative commentator Avik Roy, whom Bukele Retweeted multiple times, argued,“if [Bukele] is successful, El Salvador may become best known as a destination of emigrants *from* the United States.” Perhaps the most interesting Retweet didn’t explicitly praise the move: “Doesn’t this El Salvador News also create a tax haven…[?]” 

Bitcoin’s large and dedicated online following is perfect for generating press coverage — a fact likely known to a tech-savvy former publicist like Bukele. Even better, the fact that much of the community identifies as self-styled entrepreneurs and investors supports a narrative of Bukele being the first world leader to tap a new market for foreign investment, strengthening the image of his party as a source of “New Ideas.”

Of course, the Bitcoin law is unlikely to attract a large new wave of foreign investment, which is generally driven by factors unrelated to online fads and nice beaches. Even if it were successful, this investors-first model tends to do little to address the fundamentals of economic development: basic social services, employment opportunities, the distribution of national income, and investments that help shift production from lower to higher productivity activities. But if there’s one thing a Twitter-era head of state understands, it’s to not let truth stand in the way of a good story.

Artículo del (CEPR) Centro de Investigación para la Economía y la Política por sus siglas en inglés; escrito por Jake Johnston y publicado el 31 de Marzo del 2021.

Traducido al español por Ana Roldán.

En marzo de 2017, antes de la segunda vuelta de las elecciones presidenciales de Ecuador, el CEPR informó de que empresas fantasma con sede en Florida y vinculadas al entonces candidato Guillermo Lasso poseían 144 propiedades en los condados de Broward y Miami-Dade con un valor de más de 30 millones de dólares. En esas elecciones, los votantes aprobaron un referéndum que prohibía a los políticos y funcionarios públicos tener activos en paraísos fiscales y les daba un año para desprenderse de ellos o transferirlos. Aunque Florida no está incluida en la lista de paraísos fiscales, se considera una “jurisdicción de baja tributación”, que las autoridades tratarán caso por caso.

Cuatro años después, Ecuador se dirige de nuevo a una segunda vuelta de las elecciones presidenciales, con Lasso en la papeleta. Si bien se han introducido capas adicionales de anonimato para ocultar aún más la propiedad, una revisión de los registros corporativos e inmobiliarios en Florida muestra que las participaciones de las empresas fantasma vinculadas a Lasso han aumentado desde 2017, lo que plantea dudas sobre la legalidad de la candidatura de Lasso. Irónicamente, Lasso compite en la segunda vuelta del 11 de abril contra Andrés Arauz, uno de los arquitectos originales de las reformas que se realizaron en Ecuador en el área de los paraísos fiscales.  

Del artículo publicado en 2017 por CEPR:

En 2009, según la División de Corporaciones de Florida, Guillermo E. Lasso -el hijo del candidato- registró una LLC [limited liability company, o empresa de responsabilidad limitada] en Florida llamada Nora Investment US. Entre junio de 2009 y diciembre de 2010, la sociedad de cartera compró 59 propiedades, que todavía posee hoy, en el condado de Broward de Florida, según los registros disponibles públicamente. Las compras, en su mayoría condominios, ascendieron a 5,7 millones de dólares.

Pero esto fue sólo el comienzo. En 2011, se incorporaron dos nuevos directores a Nora Investment US: Miguel Macías y Euvenia Touriz. Ambos fueron anteriormente funcionarios del Banco Guayaquil, y ambos figuran actualmente como directores en el banco Banisi de Panamá que es propiedad de Lasso. Entre 2011 y 2013, Lasso (hijo del candidato), Macías y Touriz registraron 10 LLC en Florida en las que todos figuran como directores. Las LLC adicionales también se utilizaron para comprar propiedades en Florida.

En agosto de 2014, tras la implementación de nuevas regulaciones en Ecuador sobre los activos en el extranjero, el nombre del hijo de Lasso fue sistemáticamente eliminado como director de las 10 empresas, según muestran los registros públicos. Sin embargo, Macías y Touriz continuaron abriendo más sociedades holding. Es importante tener en cuenta que, aunque las sociedades de responsabilidad limitada incluya a los administradores, el llamado beneficiario efectivo -o verdadero propietario- queda oculto.

En junio de 2017, Macías y Touriz -asociados de Lasso de anteriores empresas fantasma y bancos- figuran como directivos en una empresa fantasma de nueva creación, DEBLEN USA 1, LLC. Dos meses después, la empresa compró una casa de lujo en Miami por 1,475 millones de dólares. No hay registro de una hipoteca, lo que sugiere que la compra probablemente se hizo en efectivo. A partir de 2018, sin embargo, tanto Macías como Touriz parecieron ser eliminados sistemáticamente como funcionarios de la gran mayoría de los registros corporativos de las empresas fantasma.

En 2020, la mayoría de las empresas fantasma previamente identificadas sufrieron innumerables cambios: desactivaciones, reactivaciones, renuncias de directores, cambios de nombre, fusiones y disoluciones. A muchas de las empresas se les cambió el nombre una semana después de su disolución. Todas las sociedades patrimoniales asociadas a Lasso, salvo cuatro, se han fusionado en nuevas entidades. En total, hemos identificado 23 empresas activas registradas en Florida, incluida DEBLEN USA 1, mencionada anteriormente, asociada a los socios comerciales de Lasso.

Tabla 1. Participaciones inmobiliarias actuales de las sociedades ficticias vinculadas a Lasso
Nombre de la Entidad Fecha de Registro Número de Propiedades Inmobiliarias Valor de la Propiedad en Florida
BROWARD TWO LLC 1/8/18 45 $8,229,770
BROWARD ONE LLC 1/8/18 50 $6,913,150
BRICKELL TWO LLC 1/8/18 6 $5,472,758
BRICKELL ONE LLC 1/8/18 5 $3,848,943
LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC 1/8/18 4 $3,629,950
NORA INVESTMENT UNO US 3/29/11 14 $2,740,000
DORAL LLC 1/8/18 10 $1,452,370
MALENA UNO US LLC 7/29/13 1 $683,636
MALENA US LLC 7/29/13 1 $680,288
Total   136 $33,650,865
Notes: Nora Investment Uno US ya no es una empresa activa, a pesar de seguir figurando como propietaria de 14 propiedades. Otras 15 empresas están actualmente activas, pero no parecen ser propietarias directas de bienes inmuebles en los condados de Miami-Dade o Broward.

Por ejemplo, en 2016, “BILL INVESTMENT CINCO US, LLC”, con Macías y Touriz que figuran como directores, compró una casa en Fort Lauderdale, Florida, por 2,2 millones de dólares. El propietario de esa casa figura ahora como “LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC”. Los registros corporativos muestran que Macías firmó el papeleo que autorizaba la fusión de una serie de empresas fantasma más antiguas en LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC y un puñado de otras corporaciones. Pero en lugar de Macías, el administrador de la empresa figura como “DIRECT MANAGEMENT LLC”. En algunas de las otras empresas, el gerente figura como “FREEDOM MANAGEMENT LLC”. En lugar de personas físicas, los únicos responsables de estas empresas recién creadas son otras empresas fantasma. En todas las empresas fusionadas figura ahora una de estas dos empresas como gerente.

Tanto “DIRECT MANAGEMENT LLC” como “FREEDOM MANAGEMENT LLC” están registradas en Delaware, otra jurisdicción tristemente célebre por su secreto empresarial. Curiosamente, los registros corporativos de Delaware revelan que ambas empresas fueron creadas en la misma fecha: el 18 de diciembre de 2017. La remodelación corporativa de Florida comenzó poco después.

Aunque los socios de Lasso ya no aparecen en los registros corporativos, no cabe duda de que el propietario real de las propiedades no ha cambiado. De las 144 propiedades que poseían las empresas en 2017, 10 fueron vendidas y en 16 sigue figurando la empresa fantasma original como propietaria. En el caso de las propiedades restantes, aunque el nombre del propietario cambió, el propietario real no lo hizo. Aquí, es importante aclarar que, como es la naturaleza de las empresas fantasma, el “beneficiario real” del activo sigue siendo totalmente secreto.

Dos de las sociedades fantasma vinculadas a Lasso realizaron nuevas compras de bienes inmuebles en 2020: BRICKELL ONE LLC y BRICKELL TWO LLC. Los registros inmobiliarios de Florida muestran que la primera, BRICKELL ONE, es a su vez el resultado de una fusión de cuatro empresas ficticias diferentes: NORA INVESTMENT CINCO, NORA INVESTMENT SEIS, NORA INVESTMENT SIETE y NORA INVESTMENT NUEVE. La primera compra fue de un condominio de 665.000 dólares en abril de 2020. La segunda tuvo lugar en octubre de 2020.

La empresa fantasma BRICKELL ONE LLC pagó 1,25 millones de dólares a finales del otoño pasado por un apartamento en Coral Gables. El tasador de propiedades de Miami-Dade evaluó la casa con un valor de sólo 734.894 dólares en 2020. Curiosamente, el vendedor de esa vivienda era Miguel Macías, que había comprado la casa en enero de 2016 por 900.000 dólares. Eso plantea preguntas adicionales. Por ejemplo, ¿por qué una empresa fantasma que Macías había gestionado anteriormente le compraría entonces una vivienda por un precio muy superior al aparente valor de mercado?

La operación inmobiliaria más significativa, sin embargo, implicó la compra en 2017 de la casa de lujo en Miami por parte de DEBLEN USA 1 LLC. En agosto de 2020, apenas tres años después de la compra, la vivienda se vendió por 5 millones de dólares. Curiosamente, la empresa fantasma proporcionó al comprador una hipoteca de 2,25 millones de dólares. DEBLEN no es la única empresa que se ha metido en el negocio hipotecario. GLOBAL EQUITY SEVEN LLC, según los registros de Florida, es actualmente el prestamista de siete hipotecas por un total de 1,2 millones de dólares. Parece que las empresas fantasma han pasado de ser simples propietarias de bienes inmuebles a actuar como prestamistas directos en el estado de Florida.

En general, como puede verse en la Tabla 1, hemos identificado 136 propiedades de empresas fantasma asociadas a Lasso. Sin duda es posible que haya otras que permanezcan ocultas. En conjunto, las que hemos identificado tienen un valor de mercado actual de 33 millones de dólares, según los registros de propiedad de los condados de Miami-Dade y Broward. Además, las empresas fantasma actualmente activas poseen los 3,45 millones de dólares en hipotecas.

Aunque el nombre de Guillermo Lasso no aparece directamente en ninguno de los registros corporativos o inmobiliarios del sur de Florida, la implicación de miembros de la familia y socios comerciales cercanos, así como los recientes movimientos hacia un anonimato aún mayor, ciertamente plantean preguntas sobre la implicación del candidato. Sin embargo, las conexiones que Lasso puede tener con las empresas fantasma de Florida están lejos de ser las únicas preguntas sobre sus actividades financieras en el exterior.

El otoño pasado, el partido Unión por la Esperanza (UNES) de Arauz impugnó la legalidad de la candidatura de Lasso basándose en la legislación implementada tras el referéndum sobre el paraíso fiscal de 2017. La ley electoral actualizada impide que cualquier persona que tenga activos en un paraíso fiscal se presente como candidato a un cargo público. La denuncia citaba una investigación de 2017 del diario argentino Página/12 que documentaba los vínculos de Lasso con decenas de empresas pantalla y un banco panameño.

En 2017, Lasso admitió que era dueño del banco panameño, Banisi S.A. Sin embargo, el CNE rechazó la denuncia. El banco sigue operando en la actualidad con Macías y Touriz que figuran como directores, así como dos de los hijos de Lasso. Banisi tiene un capital que asciende a 60,4 millones de dólares, según la Superintendencia de Bancos de Panamá.

Una cosa no ha cambiado desde 2017: los medios de comunicación -tanto internacionales como ecuatorianos- han decidido ignorar por completo las posesiones financieras en el extranjero de Lasso. En abril de 2017, la Superintendencia de Información y Comunicación de Ecuador multó a siete medios de comunicación con 3.750 dólares cada uno por no informar sobre la investigación de Página/12. En los años posteriores, el actual presidente de Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, también ha sido implicado en el uso de paraísos fiscales en el llamado escándalo de los Papeles del INA. Moreno ha negado cualquier delito. Aunque Moreno se había presentado contra Lasso en 2017, ha parecido favorecer al banquero frente a Arauz en 2021.

Descargo de responsabilidad: Andrés Arauz ha trabajado anteriormente como investigador principal en el CEPR.

Artículo del (CEPR) Centro de Investigación para la Economía y la Política por sus siglas en inglés; escrito por Jake Johnston y publicado el 31 de Marzo del 2021.

Traducido al español por Ana Roldán.

En marzo de 2017, antes de la segunda vuelta de las elecciones presidenciales de Ecuador, el CEPR informó de que empresas fantasma con sede en Florida y vinculadas al entonces candidato Guillermo Lasso poseían 144 propiedades en los condados de Broward y Miami-Dade con un valor de más de 30 millones de dólares. En esas elecciones, los votantes aprobaron un referéndum que prohibía a los políticos y funcionarios públicos tener activos en paraísos fiscales y les daba un año para desprenderse de ellos o transferirlos. Aunque Florida no está incluida en la lista de paraísos fiscales, se considera una “jurisdicción de baja tributación”, que las autoridades tratarán caso por caso.

Cuatro años después, Ecuador se dirige de nuevo a una segunda vuelta de las elecciones presidenciales, con Lasso en la papeleta. Si bien se han introducido capas adicionales de anonimato para ocultar aún más la propiedad, una revisión de los registros corporativos e inmobiliarios en Florida muestra que las participaciones de las empresas fantasma vinculadas a Lasso han aumentado desde 2017, lo que plantea dudas sobre la legalidad de la candidatura de Lasso. Irónicamente, Lasso compite en la segunda vuelta del 11 de abril contra Andrés Arauz, uno de los arquitectos originales de las reformas que se realizaron en Ecuador en el área de los paraísos fiscales.  

Del artículo publicado en 2017 por CEPR:

En 2009, según la División de Corporaciones de Florida, Guillermo E. Lasso -el hijo del candidato- registró una LLC [limited liability company, o empresa de responsabilidad limitada] en Florida llamada Nora Investment US. Entre junio de 2009 y diciembre de 2010, la sociedad de cartera compró 59 propiedades, que todavía posee hoy, en el condado de Broward de Florida, según los registros disponibles públicamente. Las compras, en su mayoría condominios, ascendieron a 5,7 millones de dólares.

Pero esto fue sólo el comienzo. En 2011, se incorporaron dos nuevos directores a Nora Investment US: Miguel Macías y Euvenia Touriz. Ambos fueron anteriormente funcionarios del Banco Guayaquil, y ambos figuran actualmente como directores en el banco Banisi de Panamá que es propiedad de Lasso. Entre 2011 y 2013, Lasso (hijo del candidato), Macías y Touriz registraron 10 LLC en Florida en las que todos figuran como directores. Las LLC adicionales también se utilizaron para comprar propiedades en Florida.

En agosto de 2014, tras la implementación de nuevas regulaciones en Ecuador sobre los activos en el extranjero, el nombre del hijo de Lasso fue sistemáticamente eliminado como director de las 10 empresas, según muestran los registros públicos. Sin embargo, Macías y Touriz continuaron abriendo más sociedades holding. Es importante tener en cuenta que, aunque las sociedades de responsabilidad limitada incluya a los administradores, el llamado beneficiario efectivo -o verdadero propietario- queda oculto.

En junio de 2017, Macías y Touriz -asociados de Lasso de anteriores empresas fantasma y bancos- figuran como directivos en una empresa fantasma de nueva creación, DEBLEN USA 1, LLC. Dos meses después, la empresa compró una casa de lujo en Miami por 1,475 millones de dólares. No hay registro de una hipoteca, lo que sugiere que la compra probablemente se hizo en efectivo. A partir de 2018, sin embargo, tanto Macías como Touriz parecieron ser eliminados sistemáticamente como funcionarios de la gran mayoría de los registros corporativos de las empresas fantasma.

En 2020, la mayoría de las empresas fantasma previamente identificadas sufrieron innumerables cambios: desactivaciones, reactivaciones, renuncias de directores, cambios de nombre, fusiones y disoluciones. A muchas de las empresas se les cambió el nombre una semana después de su disolución. Todas las sociedades patrimoniales asociadas a Lasso, salvo cuatro, se han fusionado en nuevas entidades. En total, hemos identificado 23 empresas activas registradas en Florida, incluida DEBLEN USA 1, mencionada anteriormente, asociada a los socios comerciales de Lasso.

Tabla 1. Participaciones inmobiliarias actuales de las sociedades ficticias vinculadas a Lasso
Nombre de la Entidad Fecha de Registro Número de Propiedades Inmobiliarias Valor de la Propiedad en Florida
BROWARD TWO LLC 1/8/18 45 $8,229,770
BROWARD ONE LLC 1/8/18 50 $6,913,150
BRICKELL TWO LLC 1/8/18 6 $5,472,758
BRICKELL ONE LLC 1/8/18 5 $3,848,943
LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC 1/8/18 4 $3,629,950
NORA INVESTMENT UNO US 3/29/11 14 $2,740,000
DORAL LLC 1/8/18 10 $1,452,370
MALENA UNO US LLC 7/29/13 1 $683,636
MALENA US LLC 7/29/13 1 $680,288
Total   136 $33,650,865
Notes: Nora Investment Uno US ya no es una empresa activa, a pesar de seguir figurando como propietaria de 14 propiedades. Otras 15 empresas están actualmente activas, pero no parecen ser propietarias directas de bienes inmuebles en los condados de Miami-Dade o Broward.

Por ejemplo, en 2016, “BILL INVESTMENT CINCO US, LLC”, con Macías y Touriz que figuran como directores, compró una casa en Fort Lauderdale, Florida, por 2,2 millones de dólares. El propietario de esa casa figura ahora como “LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC”. Los registros corporativos muestran que Macías firmó el papeleo que autorizaba la fusión de una serie de empresas fantasma más antiguas en LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC y un puñado de otras corporaciones. Pero en lugar de Macías, el administrador de la empresa figura como “DIRECT MANAGEMENT LLC”. En algunas de las otras empresas, el gerente figura como “FREEDOM MANAGEMENT LLC”. En lugar de personas físicas, los únicos responsables de estas empresas recién creadas son otras empresas fantasma. En todas las empresas fusionadas figura ahora una de estas dos empresas como gerente.

Tanto “DIRECT MANAGEMENT LLC” como “FREEDOM MANAGEMENT LLC” están registradas en Delaware, otra jurisdicción tristemente célebre por su secreto empresarial. Curiosamente, los registros corporativos de Delaware revelan que ambas empresas fueron creadas en la misma fecha: el 18 de diciembre de 2017. La remodelación corporativa de Florida comenzó poco después.

Aunque los socios de Lasso ya no aparecen en los registros corporativos, no cabe duda de que el propietario real de las propiedades no ha cambiado. De las 144 propiedades que poseían las empresas en 2017, 10 fueron vendidas y en 16 sigue figurando la empresa fantasma original como propietaria. En el caso de las propiedades restantes, aunque el nombre del propietario cambió, el propietario real no lo hizo. Aquí, es importante aclarar que, como es la naturaleza de las empresas fantasma, el “beneficiario real” del activo sigue siendo totalmente secreto.

Dos de las sociedades fantasma vinculadas a Lasso realizaron nuevas compras de bienes inmuebles en 2020: BRICKELL ONE LLC y BRICKELL TWO LLC. Los registros inmobiliarios de Florida muestran que la primera, BRICKELL ONE, es a su vez el resultado de una fusión de cuatro empresas ficticias diferentes: NORA INVESTMENT CINCO, NORA INVESTMENT SEIS, NORA INVESTMENT SIETE y NORA INVESTMENT NUEVE. La primera compra fue de un condominio de 665.000 dólares en abril de 2020. La segunda tuvo lugar en octubre de 2020.

La empresa fantasma BRICKELL ONE LLC pagó 1,25 millones de dólares a finales del otoño pasado por un apartamento en Coral Gables. El tasador de propiedades de Miami-Dade evaluó la casa con un valor de sólo 734.894 dólares en 2020. Curiosamente, el vendedor de esa vivienda era Miguel Macías, que había comprado la casa en enero de 2016 por 900.000 dólares. Eso plantea preguntas adicionales. Por ejemplo, ¿por qué una empresa fantasma que Macías había gestionado anteriormente le compraría entonces una vivienda por un precio muy superior al aparente valor de mercado?

La operación inmobiliaria más significativa, sin embargo, implicó la compra en 2017 de la casa de lujo en Miami por parte de DEBLEN USA 1 LLC. En agosto de 2020, apenas tres años después de la compra, la vivienda se vendió por 5 millones de dólares. Curiosamente, la empresa fantasma proporcionó al comprador una hipoteca de 2,25 millones de dólares. DEBLEN no es la única empresa que se ha metido en el negocio hipotecario. GLOBAL EQUITY SEVEN LLC, según los registros de Florida, es actualmente el prestamista de siete hipotecas por un total de 1,2 millones de dólares. Parece que las empresas fantasma han pasado de ser simples propietarias de bienes inmuebles a actuar como prestamistas directos en el estado de Florida.

En general, como puede verse en la Tabla 1, hemos identificado 136 propiedades de empresas fantasma asociadas a Lasso. Sin duda es posible que haya otras que permanezcan ocultas. En conjunto, las que hemos identificado tienen un valor de mercado actual de 33 millones de dólares, según los registros de propiedad de los condados de Miami-Dade y Broward. Además, las empresas fantasma actualmente activas poseen los 3,45 millones de dólares en hipotecas.

Aunque el nombre de Guillermo Lasso no aparece directamente en ninguno de los registros corporativos o inmobiliarios del sur de Florida, la implicación de miembros de la familia y socios comerciales cercanos, así como los recientes movimientos hacia un anonimato aún mayor, ciertamente plantean preguntas sobre la implicación del candidato. Sin embargo, las conexiones que Lasso puede tener con las empresas fantasma de Florida están lejos de ser las únicas preguntas sobre sus actividades financieras en el exterior.

El otoño pasado, el partido Unión por la Esperanza (UNES) de Arauz impugnó la legalidad de la candidatura de Lasso basándose en la legislación implementada tras el referéndum sobre el paraíso fiscal de 2017. La ley electoral actualizada impide que cualquier persona que tenga activos en un paraíso fiscal se presente como candidato a un cargo público. La denuncia citaba una investigación de 2017 del diario argentino Página/12 que documentaba los vínculos de Lasso con decenas de empresas pantalla y un banco panameño.

En 2017, Lasso admitió que era dueño del banco panameño, Banisi S.A. Sin embargo, el CNE rechazó la denuncia. El banco sigue operando en la actualidad con Macías y Touriz que figuran como directores, así como dos de los hijos de Lasso. Banisi tiene un capital que asciende a 60,4 millones de dólares, según la Superintendencia de Bancos de Panamá.

Una cosa no ha cambiado desde 2017: los medios de comunicación -tanto internacionales como ecuatorianos- han decidido ignorar por completo las posesiones financieras en el extranjero de Lasso. En abril de 2017, la Superintendencia de Información y Comunicación de Ecuador multó a siete medios de comunicación con 3.750 dólares cada uno por no informar sobre la investigación de Página/12. En los años posteriores, el actual presidente de Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, también ha sido implicado en el uso de paraísos fiscales en el llamado escándalo de los Papeles del INA. Moreno ha negado cualquier delito. Aunque Moreno se había presentado contra Lasso en 2017, ha parecido favorecer al banquero frente a Arauz en 2021.

Descargo de responsabilidad: Andrés Arauz ha trabajado anteriormente como investigador principal en el CEPR.

This article can be read in Spanish here.

In March 2017, ahead of Ecuador’s second-round presidential election, CEPR reported that Florida-based shell companies linked to then-candidate Guillermo Lasso owned 144 properties in Broward and Miami-Dade counties valued at over $30 million. In that election, voters approved a referendum barring politicians and civil servants from holding assets in tax havens and giving them one year to divest or transfer their holdings. Though Florida is not included among the list of tax havens, it is considered a “low tax jurisdiction,” which authorities will handle on a case-by-case basis.

Four years later, Ecuador is again headed to a second-round presidential vote, with Lasso on the ballot. While additional layers of anonymity have been introduced in order to further hide ownership, a review of corporate and real estate records in Florida shows the Lasso-linked shell companies’ holdings have increased since 2017, raising questions over the legality of Lasso’s candidacy. Ironically, Lasso is competing in the April 11 run-off vote against Andrés Arauz, one of the original architects of Ecuador’s tax haven reforms.

From CEPR’s 2017 report:

In 2009, according to the Florida Division of Corporations, Guillermo E. Lasso — the candidate’s son — registered an LLC in Florida called Nora Investment US. From June 2009 to December 2010, the holding company purchased 59 properties, which it still owns today, in Florida’s Broward County according to publicly available records. The purchases, mostly condos, totaled $5.7 million.

But this was just the beginning. In 2011, two new directors were added to Nora Investment US: Miguel Macias and Euvenia Touriz. Both were previously officials at Banco Guayaquil, and both are currently listed as directors at the Banisi bank in Panama that is owned by Lasso. From 2011 to 2013, Lasso (the candidate’s son), Macias, and Touriz registered 10 LLCs in Florida in which they are all listed as directors. The additional LLCs were also used to purchase properties in Florida.

In August 2014, following Ecuador’s implementation of new regulations concerning offshore assets, Lasso’s son’s name was systematically removed as a director from all 10 companies, the public records show. But Macias and Touriz continued to open additional holding companies. It is important to note that while LLCs list directors, the so-called beneficial owner — or true owner — is concealed.

In June 2017, Macias and Touriz — Lasso associates from prior shell companies and banks — were listed as officers on a newly created shell company, DEBLEN USA 1, LLC. Two months later, the company purchased a luxury home in Miami for $1.475 million. There is no record of a mortgage, suggesting that the purchase was likely made in cash. Beginning in 2018, however, both Macias and Touriz appeared to be systematically removed as officers from the vast majority of the shell companies’ corporate records.

In 2020, most of the previously identified shell companies went through myriad changes: deactivations, reactivations, officer resignations, name changes, mergers, and dissolutions. Many of the companies had their names changed within a week of their dissolution. All but four of the property-holding companies associated with Lasso have now been merged into new entities. In total, we identified 23 active companies registered in Florida, including DEBLEN USA 1, mentioned above, associated with Lasso’s business associates. 

Table 1. Current Real Estate Holdings of Lasso-Linked Shell Companies
Entity Name Date Registered Number of Real Estate Holdings Value of Florida Property
BROWARD TWO LLC 1/8/18 45 $8,229,770
BROWARD ONE LLC 1/8/18 50 $6,913,150
BRICKELL TWO LLC 1/8/18 6 $5,472,758
BRICKELL ONE LLC 1/8/18 5 $3,848,943
LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC 1/8/18 4 $3,629,950
NORA INVESTMENT UNO US 3/29/11 14 $2,740,000
DORAL LLC 1/8/18 10 $1,452,370
MALENA UNO US LLC 7/29/13 1 $683,636
MALENA US LLC 7/29/13 1 $680,288
Total   136 $33,650,865
Notes: Nora Investment Uno US is no longer an active company, despite still being listed as the owner of 14 properties. 15 additional companies are currently active, but do not appear to directly own real estate in Miami-Dade or Broward counties.

For example, in 2016, “BILL INVESTMENT CINCO US, LLC,” with Macias and Touriz listed as officers, purchased a home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for $2.2 million. The owner of that home is now listed as “LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC.” Corporate records show that Macias signed the paperwork authorizing the merger of a number of older shell companies into LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC and a handful of other corporations. But instead of Macias, the manager of the company is listed as “DIRECT MANAGEMENT LLC.” On some of the other companies, the manager is listed as “FREEDOM MANAGEMENT LLC.” Instead of individuals, the only officers of these newly created companies are additional shell companies. Every one of the merged companies now list one of these two companies as the manager.

Both “DIRECT MANAGEMENT LLC” and “FREEDOM MANAGEMENT LLC” are registered in Delaware, another jurisdiction infamous for its corporate secrecy. Interestingly, Delaware corporate records reveal that both of these companies were created on the same date: December 18, 2017. The Florida corporate reshuffling started shortly thereafter.

While Lasso’s associates no longer appear on the corporate records, there can be no doubt that the actual owner of the properties remains unchanged. Of the 144 properties owned by the companies in 2017, 10 were sold and 16 still list the original shell company as the owner. For the remaining properties, while the name of the owner changed, the actual owner did not. Here, it is important to clarify that, as is the nature with shell companies, the actual “beneficial owner” of the asset remains entirely secret.

Two of the Lasso-linked shells made new real estate purchases in 2020: BRICKELL ONE LLC and BRICKELL TWO LLC. Florida real estate records show that the former, BRICKELL ONE, is itself the result of a merger of four different shell companies: NORA INVESTMENT CINCO, NORA INVESTMENT SEIS, NORA INVESTMENT SIETE, and NORA INVESTMENT NUEVE. The first purchase was of a $665,000 condo in April 2020. The second took place in October 2020.

The shell company BRICKELL ONE LLC paid $1.25 million late last fall for a Coral Gables apartment. The Miami-Dade property appraiser assessed the house as worth just $734,894 in 2020. Interestingly, the seller of that home was Miguel Macias, who had purchased the home in January 2016 for $900,000. That raises additional questions. For example, why would a shell company Macias had previously managed then purchase a home from him for well above the apparent market value?

The most significant real estate deal, however, involved DEBLEN USA 1 LLC’s 2017 purchase of the luxury home in Miami. In August 2020, just three years after the purchase, the home was sold for $5 million. Curiously, the shell company provided the buyer with a $2.25 million mortgage. DEBLEN isn’t the only company that has moved into the mortgage business. GLOBAL EQUITY SEVEN LLC, according to Florida records, is currently the lender on seven mortgages totaling $1.2 million. It appears the shell companies have moved from being simply owners of real estate to serving as direct lenders in the state of Florida.

Overall, as can be seen in Table 1 above, we identified 136 properties owned by shell companies associated with Lasso. It is certainly possible there are others that remain hidden. Together, those identified have a current assessed market value of $33 million, according to Miami-Dade and Broward County property records. In addition, currently active shell companies hold the $3.45 million in mortgages.

Though Guillermo Lasso’s name does not appear directly on any of the south Florida corporate or real estate records, the involvement of family members and close business associates, as well as the recent moves toward even greater anonymity, certainly raises questions about the candidate’s involvement. The Florida connections are far from the only questions, however. 

Last fall, Arauz’s Union for Hope (UNES) party challenged the legality of Lasso’s candidacy based on legislation implemented following the tax haven referendum in 2017. The updated electoral law prevents anyone who holds assets in a fiscal paradise from presenting themselves as a candidate for public office. The complaint cited a 2017 investigation in Argentina’s Pagina/12 newspaper that documented Lasso’s ties to dozens of shell companies and a Panamanian bank. 

In 2017, Lasso admitted that he owned the bank, Banisi S.A. Nevertheless, the CNE rejected the complaint. The bank continues to operate today with both Macias and Touriz listed as directors as well as two of Lasso’s sons. Banisi has capital totaling $60.4 million, according to the Panamanian superintendency of banks.

One thing has not changed since 2017: the media — both international and Ecuadorian — are completely ignoring Lasso’s offshore financial holdings. In April 2017, Ecuador’s state superintendent of information and communication fined seven media outlets $3,750 each for not reporting on the Pagina/12 investigation. In the years since, the current president of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, has also been implicated in the use of tax havens in the so-called INA Papers scandal. Moreno has denied any wrongdoing. Though Moreno had run against Lasso in 2017, he has appeared to favor the banker over Arauz in 2021.

Disclaimer: Andrés Arauz has been previously employed as a Senior Research Fellow at CEPR.

This article can be read in Spanish here.

In March 2017, ahead of Ecuador’s second-round presidential election, CEPR reported that Florida-based shell companies linked to then-candidate Guillermo Lasso owned 144 properties in Broward and Miami-Dade counties valued at over $30 million. In that election, voters approved a referendum barring politicians and civil servants from holding assets in tax havens and giving them one year to divest or transfer their holdings. Though Florida is not included among the list of tax havens, it is considered a “low tax jurisdiction,” which authorities will handle on a case-by-case basis.

Four years later, Ecuador is again headed to a second-round presidential vote, with Lasso on the ballot. While additional layers of anonymity have been introduced in order to further hide ownership, a review of corporate and real estate records in Florida shows the Lasso-linked shell companies’ holdings have increased since 2017, raising questions over the legality of Lasso’s candidacy. Ironically, Lasso is competing in the April 11 run-off vote against Andrés Arauz, one of the original architects of Ecuador’s tax haven reforms.

From CEPR’s 2017 report:

In 2009, according to the Florida Division of Corporations, Guillermo E. Lasso — the candidate’s son — registered an LLC in Florida called Nora Investment US. From June 2009 to December 2010, the holding company purchased 59 properties, which it still owns today, in Florida’s Broward County according to publicly available records. The purchases, mostly condos, totaled $5.7 million.

But this was just the beginning. In 2011, two new directors were added to Nora Investment US: Miguel Macias and Euvenia Touriz. Both were previously officials at Banco Guayaquil, and both are currently listed as directors at the Banisi bank in Panama that is owned by Lasso. From 2011 to 2013, Lasso (the candidate’s son), Macias, and Touriz registered 10 LLCs in Florida in which they are all listed as directors. The additional LLCs were also used to purchase properties in Florida.

In August 2014, following Ecuador’s implementation of new regulations concerning offshore assets, Lasso’s son’s name was systematically removed as a director from all 10 companies, the public records show. But Macias and Touriz continued to open additional holding companies. It is important to note that while LLCs list directors, the so-called beneficial owner — or true owner — is concealed.

In June 2017, Macias and Touriz — Lasso associates from prior shell companies and banks — were listed as officers on a newly created shell company, DEBLEN USA 1, LLC. Two months later, the company purchased a luxury home in Miami for $1.475 million. There is no record of a mortgage, suggesting that the purchase was likely made in cash. Beginning in 2018, however, both Macias and Touriz appeared to be systematically removed as officers from the vast majority of the shell companies’ corporate records.

In 2020, most of the previously identified shell companies went through myriad changes: deactivations, reactivations, officer resignations, name changes, mergers, and dissolutions. Many of the companies had their names changed within a week of their dissolution. All but four of the property-holding companies associated with Lasso have now been merged into new entities. In total, we identified 23 active companies registered in Florida, including DEBLEN USA 1, mentioned above, associated with Lasso’s business associates. 

Table 1. Current Real Estate Holdings of Lasso-Linked Shell Companies
Entity Name Date Registered Number of Real Estate Holdings Value of Florida Property
BROWARD TWO LLC 1/8/18 45 $8,229,770
BROWARD ONE LLC 1/8/18 50 $6,913,150
BRICKELL TWO LLC 1/8/18 6 $5,472,758
BRICKELL ONE LLC 1/8/18 5 $3,848,943
LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC 1/8/18 4 $3,629,950
NORA INVESTMENT UNO US 3/29/11 14 $2,740,000
DORAL LLC 1/8/18 10 $1,452,370
MALENA UNO US LLC 7/29/13 1 $683,636
MALENA US LLC 7/29/13 1 $680,288
Total   136 $33,650,865
Notes: Nora Investment Uno US is no longer an active company, despite still being listed as the owner of 14 properties. 15 additional companies are currently active, but do not appear to directly own real estate in Miami-Dade or Broward counties.

For example, in 2016, “BILL INVESTMENT CINCO US, LLC,” with Macias and Touriz listed as officers, purchased a home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for $2.2 million. The owner of that home is now listed as “LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC.” Corporate records show that Macias signed the paperwork authorizing the merger of a number of older shell companies into LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC and a handful of other corporations. But instead of Macias, the manager of the company is listed as “DIRECT MANAGEMENT LLC.” On some of the other companies, the manager is listed as “FREEDOM MANAGEMENT LLC.” Instead of individuals, the only officers of these newly created companies are additional shell companies. Every one of the merged companies now list one of these two companies as the manager.

Both “DIRECT MANAGEMENT LLC” and “FREEDOM MANAGEMENT LLC” are registered in Delaware, another jurisdiction infamous for its corporate secrecy. Interestingly, Delaware corporate records reveal that both of these companies were created on the same date: December 18, 2017. The Florida corporate reshuffling started shortly thereafter.

While Lasso’s associates no longer appear on the corporate records, there can be no doubt that the actual owner of the properties remains unchanged. Of the 144 properties owned by the companies in 2017, 10 were sold and 16 still list the original shell company as the owner. For the remaining properties, while the name of the owner changed, the actual owner did not. Here, it is important to clarify that, as is the nature with shell companies, the actual “beneficial owner” of the asset remains entirely secret.

Two of the Lasso-linked shells made new real estate purchases in 2020: BRICKELL ONE LLC and BRICKELL TWO LLC. Florida real estate records show that the former, BRICKELL ONE, is itself the result of a merger of four different shell companies: NORA INVESTMENT CINCO, NORA INVESTMENT SEIS, NORA INVESTMENT SIETE, and NORA INVESTMENT NUEVE. The first purchase was of a $665,000 condo in April 2020. The second took place in October 2020.

The shell company BRICKELL ONE LLC paid $1.25 million late last fall for a Coral Gables apartment. The Miami-Dade property appraiser assessed the house as worth just $734,894 in 2020. Interestingly, the seller of that home was Miguel Macias, who had purchased the home in January 2016 for $900,000. That raises additional questions. For example, why would a shell company Macias had previously managed then purchase a home from him for well above the apparent market value?

The most significant real estate deal, however, involved DEBLEN USA 1 LLC’s 2017 purchase of the luxury home in Miami. In August 2020, just three years after the purchase, the home was sold for $5 million. Curiously, the shell company provided the buyer with a $2.25 million mortgage. DEBLEN isn’t the only company that has moved into the mortgage business. GLOBAL EQUITY SEVEN LLC, according to Florida records, is currently the lender on seven mortgages totaling $1.2 million. It appears the shell companies have moved from being simply owners of real estate to serving as direct lenders in the state of Florida.

Overall, as can be seen in Table 1 above, we identified 136 properties owned by shell companies associated with Lasso. It is certainly possible there are others that remain hidden. Together, those identified have a current assessed market value of $33 million, according to Miami-Dade and Broward County property records. In addition, currently active shell companies hold the $3.45 million in mortgages.

Though Guillermo Lasso’s name does not appear directly on any of the south Florida corporate or real estate records, the involvement of family members and close business associates, as well as the recent moves toward even greater anonymity, certainly raises questions about the candidate’s involvement. The Florida connections are far from the only questions, however. 

Last fall, Arauz’s Union for Hope (UNES) party challenged the legality of Lasso’s candidacy based on legislation implemented following the tax haven referendum in 2017. The updated electoral law prevents anyone who holds assets in a fiscal paradise from presenting themselves as a candidate for public office. The complaint cited a 2017 investigation in Argentina’s Pagina/12 newspaper that documented Lasso’s ties to dozens of shell companies and a Panamanian bank. 

In 2017, Lasso admitted that he owned the bank, Banisi S.A. Nevertheless, the CNE rejected the complaint. The bank continues to operate today with both Macias and Touriz listed as directors as well as two of Lasso’s sons. Banisi has capital totaling $60.4 million, according to the Panamanian superintendency of banks.

One thing has not changed since 2017: the media — both international and Ecuadorian — are completely ignoring Lasso’s offshore financial holdings. In April 2017, Ecuador’s state superintendent of information and communication fined seven media outlets $3,750 each for not reporting on the Pagina/12 investigation. In the years since, the current president of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, has also been implicated in the use of tax havens in the so-called INA Papers scandal. Moreno has denied any wrongdoing. Though Moreno had run against Lasso in 2017, he has appeared to favor the banker over Arauz in 2021.

Disclaimer: Andrés Arauz has been previously employed as a Senior Research Fellow at CEPR.

In testimony earlier this month, Admiral Craig S. Faller told Congress: “This Hemisphere in which we live is under assault.… We are losing our positional advantage in this Hemisphere and immediate action is needed to reverse this trend.” Faller was appointed commander of the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM, responsible for overseeing US military activities in Latin America) by the Trump administration in 2018, despite his ties to a notoriously corrupt defense contractor. On March 16 of this year, he spoke at a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing on the FY 2022 military budget. Hearings of this kind often serve as a platform for government officials to argue for larger budgets by highlighting both their agency’s successes and remaining challenges.

Given this context, the general thrust of Admiral Faller’s testimony is unsurprising: the US is under attack, and SOUTHCOM is defending it valiantly, but will need even more money to keep doing so. “The very democratic principles and values that bind us together,” he argues in the written version of his testimony, “are being actively undermined by violent transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and [China] and Russia.” Iran also aims to “take advantage of the nascent, fragile democracies in the region and look to exploit the region’s resources and proximity to the United States.” Finally, “malign regional actors” are “opening the door” to foreign influence and criminal organizations. However, Faller offered little evidence that these threats are really as dire as he made them out to be.

Despite describing Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as “malign regional actors,” and Iran as one of several “threats,” these four countries take up just 2 of the 22 pages in Faller’s written testimony, filled mostly with details like an Iranian-run Spanish-language news channel in the region (the US runs one as well). Of the seven sentences in the Venezuela section, six describe the country’s humanitarian crisis and don’t even attempt to portray it as a threat. Though US-Venezuela sanctions policy relies on the White House officially describing Venezuela as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” SOUTHCOM apparently has little to share about how this could be true.

According to Faller, “transnational criminal organizations” are a serious security threat in the region, but even here his analysis is misfocused. The role of Central American cartels in widespread violence and the forced displacement of nearly half a million people are barely mentioned. But he does mention the minor regional footprint of Hezbollah, despite that the group is allegedly implanted in the Triple Frontier region of South America, more than 3,500 miles from US soil. Only two criminal groups based in the Western Hemisphere are mentioned by name: a pair of Colombian left-wing guerrilla groups which, Faller claims, have close ties to the Maduro government in Venezuela (though no strong evidence of this has yet emerged).

The real subjects of Faller’s testimony were China and Russia, which are viewed through a Cold War-era framing of great power competition to justify high levels of US defense spending. In the written version of his testimony, Faller mentions China 26 times (more than any nation actually in Latin America), and the Russian government 14 times. 

Faller’s spoken testimony was less restrained than his written one, arguing: “the Chinese Communist Party, with its insidious and corrupt influence, seeks regional and global economic dominance and its own version of a rules-based international order.” As Fareed Zakaria recently put it, we are in a “new age of bloated Pentagon budgets, all to be justified by the great Chinese threat.” Observers have noted that this sort of Cold War rhetoric fuels discrimination and violence against Asian Americans; it is also detached from reality.

Faller first claims that China and Russia “are taking advantage of the pandemic” to “gain more access, presence, and influence in the region.” The impacts of COVID-19, he says, “creates a more fragile region that serves as fertile ground for our competitors to advance their interests, both malign and legitimate…” This argument portrays ending the pandemic as a competitive endeavor rather than a cooperative one, and implies that China and Russia are acting aggressively against the US when they seek to address needs in Latin America that the US has neglected. As Faller acknowledges: “If the U.S. wants to be the partner of choice — that means being first to respond in a crisis.”

Though SOUTHCOM engaged in some humanitarian relief efforts during the pandemic, from field hospitals to the provision of PPE, the overall US response in Latin America has been poor. In the critical early months, the US government may have actually accelerated the pandemic’s spread throughout the region through frequent deportations of infected individuals. The US then withdrew funding for both the World Health Organization and the Pan-American Health Organization when these multilateral organizations most needed funds to help developing countries combat the pandemic. Though US policymakers have recently begun putting greater emphasis on international aid, US assistance to the region was slow in coming. From February to August 2020, the US pledged only $141.5 million to all of Latin America in COVID-related aid (equivalent to 2.3 percent of the total US annual military aid budget).

Once vaccines became available, the US hoarded global supplies and sided with Big Pharma in helping to block other countries from manufacturing their own generic vaccines. The US initially refused to share its stockpiles with even the neighboring nation of Mexico, and now appears to be using them as leverage in getting Mexico to stop migrants from reaching the US border. The US government also pressured Brazil not to accept the Russian vaccine, as doing so would be to the “detriment of U.S. safety and security.” 

The reason nations like Brazil are now turning to China for vaccines is not Chinese aggression, but the counterproductive “vaccine nationalism” of US policy. The same applies to matters of finance: when the US fails to step up and provide the region with the help needed, Chinese assistance becomes a logical substitute. Like many other national security threats, the problem here lies not in Beijing or Moscow, but in Washington.

Outside of COVID-19, Faller presents a long list of actions through which China and Russia are growing their influence in Latin America. But the United States is also doing most of the things on Faller’s list. The US is presumed to have rightful hegemony over Latin America, “our neighborhood,” a perspective that dates to the Monroe Doctrine and suggests that China and Russia’s actions are a threat not to Latin American sovereignty, but to US sovereignty over Latin America. 

Faller notes that China and Russia have moved to expand their limited military presence in Latin America. Russia has more than doubled its naval deployments in the region, to a total of 11 in the years 2015 to 2020. We lack precise numbers on SOUTHCOM’s naval deployments over this period, but there is reason to assume they were far greater. SOUTHCOM press releases mention at least five instances of US military ships deployed in the region in 2019 alone: in May, in June twice, and in September, twice, not including aircraft-based deployments. The year 2020 also featured many US naval deployments, including those aimed at pressuring Venezuela and deterring China and Russia.

We are told that China is seeking ways to “establish global logistics and basing infrastructure in our hemisphere.” (Emphasis added.) China and Russia combined have zero military bases in Latin America (unless we include a secretive space station built as a joint venture between China and Argentina). The US military, on the other hand, has some form of enduring presence in over a dozen Latin American nations. 

China’s trade with Latin America is growing at an impressive pace, and Faller points out that it “is now the region’s second-largest trading partner behind the U.S.” It isn’t clear why trade competition is inherently malevolent, but even with this aside, China’s second-place position doesn’t match even half the US trade with Latin America, in terms of total trade. China has three trade agreements in the region, and the US has 11. 

Faller describes China’s Belt and Road Initiative as “a concerted effort by Beijing to indebt fragile countries in the region, impinge on our partners’ and allies’ sovereignty, and use its influence to extract concessions when needed.” Aside from the fact that these claims are questionable, it’s worth noting that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, where the US wields disproportionate influence, have been criticized for imposing harmful conditionalities on developing countries for decades.

Russia is selling weapons to Latin America, but the US is the world’s largest arms dealer by far; in fact, Russia and China’s arms sales are shrinking, while US sales are growing. Under Trump, it became even easier for US weapons to wind up in the hands of criminal organizations and human rights abusers in Latin America.

The US government has provided military assistance to Latin American security forces for decades longer than China has, and in far greater amounts. Though Faller contrasts Russian military training with (much-larger) US training programs that he says include “values like respect for human rights and the rule of law,” US-backed forces have committed human rights violations in the region for well over a century. Faller even mentions a US Army unit “currently training Colombian and Honduran forces” in counternarcotics operations, two countries that have received massive US security assistance and where security forces have long and ongoing records of committing human rights abuses. 

Faller’s credibility on human rights becomes particularly questionable when he claims that the US base at Guantanamo Bay “continues to conduct safe, legal, and humane detention operations.” Earlier this year, UN human rights experts described it as “a place of arbitrariness and abuse, a site where torture and ill-treatment was rampant and remains institutionalised, where the rule of law is effectively suspended, and where justice is denied.”

Lastly, Faller criticizes Russia and China for their disinformation campaigns in the region. Such “fake news” efforts are a large and growing problem in Latin America, and one to which the US contributes. In recent years, US companies have engaged in large-scale disinformation campaigns across the region. Despite recent cuts, the US also continues to spend millions every year on an Office of Cuba Broadcasting, whose news programming has been described by a US government review as “ineffective propaganda.”

Faller’s analysis only makes sense through a lens of extreme US exceptionalism in which an action is good when the US does it, but bad when others do it. When Cuba sends doctors abroad to provide much-needed assistance, it’s because they are trying “to build international goodwill and gain back door access to undermine fragile democracies.” But when the US, which has an actual history of “undermin[ing] fragile democracies,” engages in largely identical medical diplomacy missions, it’s simply to provide “relevant and timely support to our partners and demonstrate our commitment to the region.”

Faller argues that “we must build OUR team to win this strategic competition.” How? “To put it simply, we outcompete bad guys by being the good guys. While our adversaries look for opportunities to extract, we look for ways to build up.” 

If the US wants to be the “good guys” in Latin America, it should start by putting the region’s interests first. This means pursuing a strategy of regional cooperation to provide hemispheric neighbors with support they actually want, without conditions — not by more funding for counterproductive operations by the military and other security agencies focused on reaffirming US hegemony.

In testimony earlier this month, Admiral Craig S. Faller told Congress: “This Hemisphere in which we live is under assault.… We are losing our positional advantage in this Hemisphere and immediate action is needed to reverse this trend.” Faller was appointed commander of the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM, responsible for overseeing US military activities in Latin America) by the Trump administration in 2018, despite his ties to a notoriously corrupt defense contractor. On March 16 of this year, he spoke at a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing on the FY 2022 military budget. Hearings of this kind often serve as a platform for government officials to argue for larger budgets by highlighting both their agency’s successes and remaining challenges.

Given this context, the general thrust of Admiral Faller’s testimony is unsurprising: the US is under attack, and SOUTHCOM is defending it valiantly, but will need even more money to keep doing so. “The very democratic principles and values that bind us together,” he argues in the written version of his testimony, “are being actively undermined by violent transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and [China] and Russia.” Iran also aims to “take advantage of the nascent, fragile democracies in the region and look to exploit the region’s resources and proximity to the United States.” Finally, “malign regional actors” are “opening the door” to foreign influence and criminal organizations. However, Faller offered little evidence that these threats are really as dire as he made them out to be.

Despite describing Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as “malign regional actors,” and Iran as one of several “threats,” these four countries take up just 2 of the 22 pages in Faller’s written testimony, filled mostly with details like an Iranian-run Spanish-language news channel in the region (the US runs one as well). Of the seven sentences in the Venezuela section, six describe the country’s humanitarian crisis and don’t even attempt to portray it as a threat. Though US-Venezuela sanctions policy relies on the White House officially describing Venezuela as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” SOUTHCOM apparently has little to share about how this could be true.

According to Faller, “transnational criminal organizations” are a serious security threat in the region, but even here his analysis is misfocused. The role of Central American cartels in widespread violence and the forced displacement of nearly half a million people are barely mentioned. But he does mention the minor regional footprint of Hezbollah, despite that the group is allegedly implanted in the Triple Frontier region of South America, more than 3,500 miles from US soil. Only two criminal groups based in the Western Hemisphere are mentioned by name: a pair of Colombian left-wing guerrilla groups which, Faller claims, have close ties to the Maduro government in Venezuela (though no strong evidence of this has yet emerged).

The real subjects of Faller’s testimony were China and Russia, which are viewed through a Cold War-era framing of great power competition to justify high levels of US defense spending. In the written version of his testimony, Faller mentions China 26 times (more than any nation actually in Latin America), and the Russian government 14 times. 

Faller’s spoken testimony was less restrained than his written one, arguing: “the Chinese Communist Party, with its insidious and corrupt influence, seeks regional and global economic dominance and its own version of a rules-based international order.” As Fareed Zakaria recently put it, we are in a “new age of bloated Pentagon budgets, all to be justified by the great Chinese threat.” Observers have noted that this sort of Cold War rhetoric fuels discrimination and violence against Asian Americans; it is also detached from reality.

Faller first claims that China and Russia “are taking advantage of the pandemic” to “gain more access, presence, and influence in the region.” The impacts of COVID-19, he says, “creates a more fragile region that serves as fertile ground for our competitors to advance their interests, both malign and legitimate…” This argument portrays ending the pandemic as a competitive endeavor rather than a cooperative one, and implies that China and Russia are acting aggressively against the US when they seek to address needs in Latin America that the US has neglected. As Faller acknowledges: “If the U.S. wants to be the partner of choice — that means being first to respond in a crisis.”

Though SOUTHCOM engaged in some humanitarian relief efforts during the pandemic, from field hospitals to the provision of PPE, the overall US response in Latin America has been poor. In the critical early months, the US government may have actually accelerated the pandemic’s spread throughout the region through frequent deportations of infected individuals. The US then withdrew funding for both the World Health Organization and the Pan-American Health Organization when these multilateral organizations most needed funds to help developing countries combat the pandemic. Though US policymakers have recently begun putting greater emphasis on international aid, US assistance to the region was slow in coming. From February to August 2020, the US pledged only $141.5 million to all of Latin America in COVID-related aid (equivalent to 2.3 percent of the total US annual military aid budget).

Once vaccines became available, the US hoarded global supplies and sided with Big Pharma in helping to block other countries from manufacturing their own generic vaccines. The US initially refused to share its stockpiles with even the neighboring nation of Mexico, and now appears to be using them as leverage in getting Mexico to stop migrants from reaching the US border. The US government also pressured Brazil not to accept the Russian vaccine, as doing so would be to the “detriment of U.S. safety and security.” 

The reason nations like Brazil are now turning to China for vaccines is not Chinese aggression, but the counterproductive “vaccine nationalism” of US policy. The same applies to matters of finance: when the US fails to step up and provide the region with the help needed, Chinese assistance becomes a logical substitute. Like many other national security threats, the problem here lies not in Beijing or Moscow, but in Washington.

Outside of COVID-19, Faller presents a long list of actions through which China and Russia are growing their influence in Latin America. But the United States is also doing most of the things on Faller’s list. The US is presumed to have rightful hegemony over Latin America, “our neighborhood,” a perspective that dates to the Monroe Doctrine and suggests that China and Russia’s actions are a threat not to Latin American sovereignty, but to US sovereignty over Latin America. 

Faller notes that China and Russia have moved to expand their limited military presence in Latin America. Russia has more than doubled its naval deployments in the region, to a total of 11 in the years 2015 to 2020. We lack precise numbers on SOUTHCOM’s naval deployments over this period, but there is reason to assume they were far greater. SOUTHCOM press releases mention at least five instances of US military ships deployed in the region in 2019 alone: in May, in June twice, and in September, twice, not including aircraft-based deployments. The year 2020 also featured many US naval deployments, including those aimed at pressuring Venezuela and deterring China and Russia.

We are told that China is seeking ways to “establish global logistics and basing infrastructure in our hemisphere.” (Emphasis added.) China and Russia combined have zero military bases in Latin America (unless we include a secretive space station built as a joint venture between China and Argentina). The US military, on the other hand, has some form of enduring presence in over a dozen Latin American nations. 

China’s trade with Latin America is growing at an impressive pace, and Faller points out that it “is now the region’s second-largest trading partner behind the U.S.” It isn’t clear why trade competition is inherently malevolent, but even with this aside, China’s second-place position doesn’t match even half the US trade with Latin America, in terms of total trade. China has three trade agreements in the region, and the US has 11. 

Faller describes China’s Belt and Road Initiative as “a concerted effort by Beijing to indebt fragile countries in the region, impinge on our partners’ and allies’ sovereignty, and use its influence to extract concessions when needed.” Aside from the fact that these claims are questionable, it’s worth noting that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, where the US wields disproportionate influence, have been criticized for imposing harmful conditionalities on developing countries for decades.

Russia is selling weapons to Latin America, but the US is the world’s largest arms dealer by far; in fact, Russia and China’s arms sales are shrinking, while US sales are growing. Under Trump, it became even easier for US weapons to wind up in the hands of criminal organizations and human rights abusers in Latin America.

The US government has provided military assistance to Latin American security forces for decades longer than China has, and in far greater amounts. Though Faller contrasts Russian military training with (much-larger) US training programs that he says include “values like respect for human rights and the rule of law,” US-backed forces have committed human rights violations in the region for well over a century. Faller even mentions a US Army unit “currently training Colombian and Honduran forces” in counternarcotics operations, two countries that have received massive US security assistance and where security forces have long and ongoing records of committing human rights abuses. 

Faller’s credibility on human rights becomes particularly questionable when he claims that the US base at Guantanamo Bay “continues to conduct safe, legal, and humane detention operations.” Earlier this year, UN human rights experts described it as “a place of arbitrariness and abuse, a site where torture and ill-treatment was rampant and remains institutionalised, where the rule of law is effectively suspended, and where justice is denied.”

Lastly, Faller criticizes Russia and China for their disinformation campaigns in the region. Such “fake news” efforts are a large and growing problem in Latin America, and one to which the US contributes. In recent years, US companies have engaged in large-scale disinformation campaigns across the region. Despite recent cuts, the US also continues to spend millions every year on an Office of Cuba Broadcasting, whose news programming has been described by a US government review as “ineffective propaganda.”

Faller’s analysis only makes sense through a lens of extreme US exceptionalism in which an action is good when the US does it, but bad when others do it. When Cuba sends doctors abroad to provide much-needed assistance, it’s because they are trying “to build international goodwill and gain back door access to undermine fragile democracies.” But when the US, which has an actual history of “undermin[ing] fragile democracies,” engages in largely identical medical diplomacy missions, it’s simply to provide “relevant and timely support to our partners and demonstrate our commitment to the region.”

Faller argues that “we must build OUR team to win this strategic competition.” How? “To put it simply, we outcompete bad guys by being the good guys. While our adversaries look for opportunities to extract, we look for ways to build up.” 

If the US wants to be the “good guys” in Latin America, it should start by putting the region’s interests first. This means pursuing a strategy of regional cooperation to provide hemispheric neighbors with support they actually want, without conditions — not by more funding for counterproductive operations by the military and other security agencies focused on reaffirming US hegemony.

See also Part I: “How a Colombian Ex-President Went to Bat for Trump in Florida” 

The previous piece in this series explored how key right-wing Colombian political figures, namely President Iván Duque, ex-president Álvaro Uribe, and several senators from the ruling Centro Democrático Party, acted to influence the US elections in Florida last year in favor of Donald Trump and the GOP. Just months after this interference in the US elections, the same political forces in Colombia are now attempting to affect the outcome of Ecuador’s presidential contest, which will be decided by a runoff scheduled for April 11. 

This latest example of Colombian political intervention began on January 30, a week before the first round of Ecuador’s presidential and legislative elections. That day, the right-wing Colombian magazine Semana, which is closely aligned with uribismo (the rightwing movement led by former president Uribe) and which models its journalism on Fox News, published an explosive article claiming that the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) — a guerrilla movement at war with the Colombian government — donated $80,000 to Andrés Arauz’s presidential campaign. Further, the magazine alleged that the transaction was facilitated by Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa, who is currently exiled in Belgium. The claims are supposedly based on the private digital files of ELN leader Andrés Felipe Vanegas Londoño, known by the nom de guerre “Uriel,” which the military claims to have obtained in a Colombian military raid on an ELN encampment.

Problems emerged immediately, however, with the account published in Semana. According to the magazine’s sources, the ELN donation to Arauz’s campaign was coordinated during a September 2020 conference hosted by the Progressive International (PI), which counts Arauz and Correa among its council members, along with a number of other well-known left-leaning figures including Brazil’s former foreign minister Celso Amorim, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, intellectuals Naomi Klein, Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and actors Gael García Bernal and John Cusack. The event took place entirely online and can be viewed here. There is no plausible manner in which the alleged donation could have been coordinated during the event, which was at all times live-streamed. PI posted a statement categorically rejecting the allegations and noting that the group has no association of any kind with the ELN and that no ELN members were present at the event. 

If any additional proof were needed of the fabricated nature of the ELN funding narrative, a video showing supposed ELN members endorsing Arauz and then firing their weapons in the air was met with heavy skepticism when a bird non-native to Colombia was heard whistling in the video. According to the ornithologist who pointed out the inconsistency, “the video could not have been filmed in Colombia.” 

Despite their implausibility, the accusations of ELN funding have been heavily covered in Ecuadorian media, which is generally hostile toward Arauz’s candidacy. Likewise, Ecuador’s current president, Lenín Moreno, who has gone to great lengths to bar both Arauz and Correa from the ballot, recently sought to lend credence to the allegations. While the smears continue to be treated as serious “news” by the Ecuadorian press, even Semana’s director has admitted that they may be false, stating: “I want to make it absolutely clear, I am not saying that this information is absolutely certain.” Meanwhile, some independent media outlets have called attention to the conveniently timed nature of these revelations and pointed out that other left politicians in the region — including Correa — have been accused of connections to Colombian guerrillas based on similarly dubious “seized” computer files. It is conspicuous that, despite the initial media fervor around the Colombian government’s 2008 seizure of what has since been widely referred to as a “magic laptop,” even Correa’s most vociferous detractors in the US never mention the “evidence,” supposedly found in captured computer files, of his alleged connections to Colombian guerillas today. 

As in Florida ahead of the 2020 US elections, senior Colombian government officials are inserting themselves in Ecuador’s elections by promoting this smear campaign ahead of the upcoming second-round vote. It’s worth noting, first of all, that the alleged ELN files appear to have been leaked to Semana by Colombian government sources, though we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that Colombian officials quickly played proactive role in the smear campaign against Arauz. Colombia’s attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, traveled to Quito on February 12 to formally deliver “evidence” in the Uriel case to his Ecuadorian counterpart, Diana Salazar. The visit, taking place only days after the first round of Ecuador’s election, was condemned by many as an act of unjustified intervention, including Colombia’s ex-president Ernesto Samper, who called it a case of “foul play.”

Nevertheless, Salazar is conducting an official investigation that could potentially be used as a pretext to prosecute a future president Arauz and remove him from power were he to win the presidency; or perhaps even prevent him from running in the run-off election, despite having far more votes than the runner-up. Salazar’s short tenure as attorney general (she was appointed in April 2019) has been mired in controversy due to her decision to jail two high-profile Moreno opponents on dubious charges of “rebellion,” based on their support for the massive indigenous-led anti-government protests of October 2019.  Salazar also led efforts to prosecute former president Rafael Correa, resulting in an eight-year sentence against Correa based on charges of “psychic influence” over an alleged corruption ring. 

In spite of her controversial and seemingly politically-driven prosecutorial record, Salazar recently received an “anti-corruption” award from the US State Department. Were Salazar merely to announce charges against Arauz, it could undermine his candidacy, no matter how baseless the charges might be, and regardless of whether they lead to prosecution. 

Ecuador’s elections have also been rocked by allegations of fraud from the first round’s third-place finisher, Indigenous leader and Pachakutik party candidate, Yaku Pérez. Pérez, who finished with just 32,000 fewer votes than right-wing banker Guillermo Lasso, has spent weeks pushing for a recount while claiming massive fraud, to little success. Pérez’s allegations appear to stem from the fact that the early count put him in second place, but he finished third later in the vote count.  Therefore fraud must have taken place. This argument might sound familiar, and Ecuadorian political cartoonists have made the connection between Pérez’s “stop the steal” campaign and Donald Trump’s. Pérez’s third-place finish behind Lasso was predictable, and predicted, based on the geographic distribution of uncounted ballots following initial returns in the hours after polls closed on February 7. Nevertheless, Pérez has peddled an ill-conceived conspiracy theory that somehow the electoral authority, Arauz, Correa, and Lasso colluded to keep him from participating in the runoff. The CNE ultimately rejected Pérez’s appeal for an additional recount and an electoral court later rejected Pérez’s demand for a recount of 50 percent of the votes, noting that there was insufficient evidence to warrant the demand. 

Undeterred, Pérez appears to have endorsed one right-wing commentator’s call for the military to intervene in the elections in order to “prevent the return of Correísmo.” Pérez has shared, on social media, an El Comercio op-ed by Simón Espinosa Cordero, a member of Ecuador’s anti-corruption commission, calling for Ecuador’s armed forces to take control of the electoral process and force an immediate ruling on the alleged ELN financing of Arauz’s campaign. Espinosa’s op-ed cites the ELN allegation from Colombia as among the prime reasons for the military intervention, a point which Pérez reiterates in his own demands for the armed forces to intervene and force an immediate ruling on the alleged ELN financing. What is now clear is that multiple political forces in Colombia and Ecuador are making use of these smears to try and damage and even block the front-runner in his efforts to win the Ecuadorian presidency.

Colombia’s right-wing government has now intervened in both the 2020 US elections and in Ecuador’s 2021 elections, using red-baiting tactics to fear monger about “socialism” in Florida and to wage a smear campaign intended to tank the candidacy of the likely next president of Ecuador. This electoral interference could end up having significant implications for Ecuador’s relations with Colombia, and for the region more widely, which increasingly seems polarized between a resurgent “pink tide” and far-right governments and movements that appear to be continuing to receive support from the US government.

See also Part I: “How a Colombian Ex-President Went to Bat for Trump in Florida” 

The previous piece in this series explored how key right-wing Colombian political figures, namely President Iván Duque, ex-president Álvaro Uribe, and several senators from the ruling Centro Democrático Party, acted to influence the US elections in Florida last year in favor of Donald Trump and the GOP. Just months after this interference in the US elections, the same political forces in Colombia are now attempting to affect the outcome of Ecuador’s presidential contest, which will be decided by a runoff scheduled for April 11. 

This latest example of Colombian political intervention began on January 30, a week before the first round of Ecuador’s presidential and legislative elections. That day, the right-wing Colombian magazine Semana, which is closely aligned with uribismo (the rightwing movement led by former president Uribe) and which models its journalism on Fox News, published an explosive article claiming that the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) — a guerrilla movement at war with the Colombian government — donated $80,000 to Andrés Arauz’s presidential campaign. Further, the magazine alleged that the transaction was facilitated by Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa, who is currently exiled in Belgium. The claims are supposedly based on the private digital files of ELN leader Andrés Felipe Vanegas Londoño, known by the nom de guerre “Uriel,” which the military claims to have obtained in a Colombian military raid on an ELN encampment.

Problems emerged immediately, however, with the account published in Semana. According to the magazine’s sources, the ELN donation to Arauz’s campaign was coordinated during a September 2020 conference hosted by the Progressive International (PI), which counts Arauz and Correa among its council members, along with a number of other well-known left-leaning figures including Brazil’s former foreign minister Celso Amorim, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, intellectuals Naomi Klein, Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and actors Gael García Bernal and John Cusack. The event took place entirely online and can be viewed here. There is no plausible manner in which the alleged donation could have been coordinated during the event, which was at all times live-streamed. PI posted a statement categorically rejecting the allegations and noting that the group has no association of any kind with the ELN and that no ELN members were present at the event. 

If any additional proof were needed of the fabricated nature of the ELN funding narrative, a video showing supposed ELN members endorsing Arauz and then firing their weapons in the air was met with heavy skepticism when a bird non-native to Colombia was heard whistling in the video. According to the ornithologist who pointed out the inconsistency, “the video could not have been filmed in Colombia.” 

Despite their implausibility, the accusations of ELN funding have been heavily covered in Ecuadorian media, which is generally hostile toward Arauz’s candidacy. Likewise, Ecuador’s current president, Lenín Moreno, who has gone to great lengths to bar both Arauz and Correa from the ballot, recently sought to lend credence to the allegations. While the smears continue to be treated as serious “news” by the Ecuadorian press, even Semana’s director has admitted that they may be false, stating: “I want to make it absolutely clear, I am not saying that this information is absolutely certain.” Meanwhile, some independent media outlets have called attention to the conveniently timed nature of these revelations and pointed out that other left politicians in the region — including Correa — have been accused of connections to Colombian guerrillas based on similarly dubious “seized” computer files. It is conspicuous that, despite the initial media fervor around the Colombian government’s 2008 seizure of what has since been widely referred to as a “magic laptop,” even Correa’s most vociferous detractors in the US never mention the “evidence,” supposedly found in captured computer files, of his alleged connections to Colombian guerillas today. 

As in Florida ahead of the 2020 US elections, senior Colombian government officials are inserting themselves in Ecuador’s elections by promoting this smear campaign ahead of the upcoming second-round vote. It’s worth noting, first of all, that the alleged ELN files appear to have been leaked to Semana by Colombian government sources, though we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that Colombian officials quickly played proactive role in the smear campaign against Arauz. Colombia’s attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, traveled to Quito on February 12 to formally deliver “evidence” in the Uriel case to his Ecuadorian counterpart, Diana Salazar. The visit, taking place only days after the first round of Ecuador’s election, was condemned by many as an act of unjustified intervention, including Colombia’s ex-president Ernesto Samper, who called it a case of “foul play.”

Nevertheless, Salazar is conducting an official investigation that could potentially be used as a pretext to prosecute a future president Arauz and remove him from power were he to win the presidency; or perhaps even prevent him from running in the run-off election, despite having far more votes than the runner-up. Salazar’s short tenure as attorney general (she was appointed in April 2019) has been mired in controversy due to her decision to jail two high-profile Moreno opponents on dubious charges of “rebellion,” based on their support for the massive indigenous-led anti-government protests of October 2019.  Salazar also led efforts to prosecute former president Rafael Correa, resulting in an eight-year sentence against Correa based on charges of “psychic influence” over an alleged corruption ring. 

In spite of her controversial and seemingly politically-driven prosecutorial record, Salazar recently received an “anti-corruption” award from the US State Department. Were Salazar merely to announce charges against Arauz, it could undermine his candidacy, no matter how baseless the charges might be, and regardless of whether they lead to prosecution. 

Ecuador’s elections have also been rocked by allegations of fraud from the first round’s third-place finisher, Indigenous leader and Pachakutik party candidate, Yaku Pérez. Pérez, who finished with just 32,000 fewer votes than right-wing banker Guillermo Lasso, has spent weeks pushing for a recount while claiming massive fraud, to little success. Pérez’s allegations appear to stem from the fact that the early count put him in second place, but he finished third later in the vote count.  Therefore fraud must have taken place. This argument might sound familiar, and Ecuadorian political cartoonists have made the connection between Pérez’s “stop the steal” campaign and Donald Trump’s. Pérez’s third-place finish behind Lasso was predictable, and predicted, based on the geographic distribution of uncounted ballots following initial returns in the hours after polls closed on February 7. Nevertheless, Pérez has peddled an ill-conceived conspiracy theory that somehow the electoral authority, Arauz, Correa, and Lasso colluded to keep him from participating in the runoff. The CNE ultimately rejected Pérez’s appeal for an additional recount and an electoral court later rejected Pérez’s demand for a recount of 50 percent of the votes, noting that there was insufficient evidence to warrant the demand. 

Undeterred, Pérez appears to have endorsed one right-wing commentator’s call for the military to intervene in the elections in order to “prevent the return of Correísmo.” Pérez has shared, on social media, an El Comercio op-ed by Simón Espinosa Cordero, a member of Ecuador’s anti-corruption commission, calling for Ecuador’s armed forces to take control of the electoral process and force an immediate ruling on the alleged ELN financing of Arauz’s campaign. Espinosa’s op-ed cites the ELN allegation from Colombia as among the prime reasons for the military intervention, a point which Pérez reiterates in his own demands for the armed forces to intervene and force an immediate ruling on the alleged ELN financing. What is now clear is that multiple political forces in Colombia and Ecuador are making use of these smears to try and damage and even block the front-runner in his efforts to win the Ecuadorian presidency.

Colombia’s right-wing government has now intervened in both the 2020 US elections and in Ecuador’s 2021 elections, using red-baiting tactics to fear monger about “socialism” in Florida and to wage a smear campaign intended to tank the candidacy of the likely next president of Ecuador. This electoral interference could end up having significant implications for Ecuador’s relations with Colombia, and for the region more widely, which increasingly seems polarized between a resurgent “pink tide” and far-right governments and movements that appear to be continuing to receive support from the US government.

Latin Americans are used to the US government interfering in their politics. Over the years, the US has helped orchestrate a number of coups throughout the hemisphere, most notoriously the 1954 ouster of Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz, and the 1973 military coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende. But there are far more recent examples of meddling, including US interference in Haiti’s 2010 election and State Department actions that helped a coup succeed in Honduras in 2009. 

Last year, the US got a small taste of its own medicine when several high-profile Colombian politicians from the ruling right-wing Centro Democrático party, including a former president, dipped their toes into the electoral waters of the Sunshine State. It has now been acknowledged in various US, Colombian, and international outlets that, both openly and behind the scenes, Colombian right-wing actors bet heavily on Trump’s campaign in Florida last year, and contributed to his victory in the state, despite Trump’s national loss. 

The seeds of this effort stretch back several years. Former president Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010), a right-wing leader who US officials believed had ties to Colombian paramilitary groups responsible for human rights atrocities, has spent years forming extensive contacts with various Repblican politicians in Florida, from Senator Marco Rubio to freshman Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar, whom Uribe endorsed during her congressional campaign last year. Senators from Uribe’s Centro Democrático party — including Juan David Vélez and María Fernanda Cabal — openly campaigned for Trump, while Trump’s advisors, including Cuban-American Mercedes Schlapp, took a page from Uribe’s campaign playbook by helping to engineer anti-socialist messaging in an attempt to garner votes for Trump from Cuban, Colombian, and Venezuelan diaspora communities in South Florida. These efforts represent an unprecedented level of intervention by the Colombian Right in US politics and an effort by the Colombian government to expand its foreign policy ambitions by influencing electoral outcomes in other countries throughout the Americas. 

Uribe himself is a highly polarizing figure in Colombia and the region. Though he left office with high approval ratings, his administration oversaw massive human rights abuses. Under Uribe, Colombian military and paramilitary groups, often working in tandem, were involved in numerous massacres of unarmed civilians. A number of Uribe’s family members and close allies have reportedly had close relations with paramilitary forces and Uribe himself allegedly helped create one of Colombia’s most brutal paramilitary groups in the 1990s. 

Uribe has continuously campaigned against the peace agreement with the FARC insurgency, and he and his allies have sought to block its implementation since its approval by Colombia’s congress in 2016. Hindered by term limits that prevented him from again seeking the presidency, Uribe chose former Inter-American Development Bank official Iván Duque as his standard-bearer for the 2018 election, and Duque — who won the election — is widely considered to be Uribe’s stand-in.  

Since leaving the presidency, Uribe has become embroiled in a variety of corruption scandals linked to his time in office, and was sentenced to house arrest in 2020. Within months he was released, reportedly due in part to strong pressure exerted by then US vice president Mike Pence and Florida Republicans. President Trump Tweeted a congratulatory message to Uribe when his arrest was suspended. 

It should come as no surprise then that Uribe, Duque, and the Colombian Right threw in their lot with Trump and Florida’s Republicans. They share the common goals of ousting Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, by nearly any means. Trump, in addition to implementing sweeping new economic sanctions against Venezuela, took a hard-line approach involving threats of military intervention and vigorous support for a possible coup against Maduro by Venezuela’s armed forces. Duque is likewise a Venezuela hawk who has called for more sanctions on Venezuela, and has been accused of allowing dissident Venezuelan military troops to train in Colombian territory and to launch an ill-fated invasion of Venezuela in early 2020. 

Given this close alignment of views on Venezuela, it isn’t surprising to see Republicans in South Florida embrace some of the charged rhetoric used by the Right in Colombia. Alongside allegations of “socialism” used against Florida Democrats, the charge of castrochavismo (“Castro-Chávism,” referring to a supposed joint political project linking the Castro brothers and Hugo Chávez) has become increasingly frequent. In October 2016, following the defeat of the peace deal in the 2016 referendum, Uribe campaigned against the peace agreement’s ratification by the Colombian Congress at the popular Colombian restaurant Mondongo’s in heavily Venezuelan and Colombian Doral, Florida. Flanked by Republican politicians including Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, Uribe whipped up a crowd of Colombian expats by warning that castrochavismo would come to Colombia were the agreement ratified. Several reports have suggested this was the moment when South Florida Republicans realized that the castrochavismo label might prove effective among Cuban, Colombian, and Venezuelan-Americans — ever more important voting blocs in Florida. As Colombian-American political analyst Juan Pablo Salas put it: “The lessons that Uribismo learned from the referendum in Colombia have been translated to Republicans, who have had no problem applying them in South Florida.”

It is no coincidence then that the 2018 campaigns in Florida and Colombia featured nearly identical red-baiting tactics: Republican candidate Ron DeSantis frequently referred to Democrat Andrew Gillum as a “socialist,” and warned that if elected Gillum would turn Florida into a “second Venezuela.” Uribe had himself used the same exact rhetoric before, warning in 2016 that the peace deal would transform Colombia into a “second Venezuela,” and fear mongering over left politicians seeking to turn their countries into “another Venezuela” has become a common right-wing political tactic throughout Latin America, employed against figures including Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Fernando Haddad in Brazil. Unsurprisingly, when left politician Gustavo Petro ran against Duque for the presidency in 2018, Colombians were told that Petro, if elected, would do the same. 

At the same time DeSantis was calling Gillum a dangerous “socialist,” Duque was using the same rhetoric against Petro, 1,500 miles away. DeSantis went on to narrowly defeat Gillum, while 70 percent of Colombian-Americans who voted in the Colombian election from abroad voted for Duque over Petro, as compared to 54 percent in Colombia. The supposed menace of Maduro’s (and before him Chávez’s) Venezuela has increasingly become a useful tool not only in Colombia, but in Florida and US politics as well. 

The red-baiting only grew more shrill in 2020, with the Trump campaign running multiple ads claiming that Joe Biden was the preferred candidate of the Venezuelan government. Trump likewise attacked Biden for supposedly being supported by Gustavo Petro, announcing: “Biden is weak on socialism and will betray Colombia,” in a transparent effort to attract pro-Duque Colombians living in Florida and elsewhere. Schlapp, the Trump advisor, released a video in which she claimed that Gustavo Petro supported Biden, and that “Biden has surrounded himself with socialists like [Petro], including Bernie Sanders and the communist [sic] Karen Bass.” 

At the same time, Trump received the endorsement of members of Uribe’s party, including Senator María Fernanda Cabal and Representative Juan David Vélez, who represents Colombians abroad, while Uribe himself weighed in to endorse the ultimately victorious Maria Elvira Salazar’s campaign for a congressional seat representing suburban Miami.

Donald Trump attacks Joseph Biden in a Tweet by saying Biden is supported by Colombia's Gustavo Petro.

By all accounts, these efforts worked well among Colombian, Venezuelan, and Cuban voters in Florida. Some of Trump’s largest gains in the entire country were in South Florida, and especially in heavy Colombian and Venezuelan towns like Doral and Weston (Trump improved in Doral by over 30 percent compared to his 2016 performance). Overall, Trump won Florida by 3.3 percentage points (compared to 1.2 percentage points in 2016), while the GOP picked up two House seats. Exit polls reported that Trump won 46 percent of the Latino vote in Florida, a much higher proportion than his national total (32 percent). It should also be emphasized that Trump’s overall margin in Florida expanded while he actually lost ground among white voters, as compared to 2016 (62 percent, vs. 64 percent in 2016). 

It is clear that the Colombian Right, led by Álvaro Uribe and Iván Duque,is prepared to go to significant lengths to bolster its allies abroad. As one Colombian analyst argued: “Duque has seriously compromised the privileged relationship he has with the United States.” Indeed, Democrats took notice of these efforts: two Democratic Congressmen, new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Gregory Meeks, and Ruben Gallego penned an October 2020 op-ed calling on Vélez and Fernanda Cabal to refrain from further campaigning for Trump: “we have a very clear message for our Colombian counterparts: Show us the respect of staying out of our elections.” 

That was last year. This year, Duque and his right-wing allies are at it again: this time in neighboring Ecuador, where presidential elections are underway, and a left-leaning candidate is the front runner.  

Coming up next: “How the Colombian Right’s Smear Campaign has Rocked Ecuador’s Presidential Election”

Latin Americans are used to the US government interfering in their politics. Over the years, the US has helped orchestrate a number of coups throughout the hemisphere, most notoriously the 1954 ouster of Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz, and the 1973 military coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende. But there are far more recent examples of meddling, including US interference in Haiti’s 2010 election and State Department actions that helped a coup succeed in Honduras in 2009. 

Last year, the US got a small taste of its own medicine when several high-profile Colombian politicians from the ruling right-wing Centro Democrático party, including a former president, dipped their toes into the electoral waters of the Sunshine State. It has now been acknowledged in various US, Colombian, and international outlets that, both openly and behind the scenes, Colombian right-wing actors bet heavily on Trump’s campaign in Florida last year, and contributed to his victory in the state, despite Trump’s national loss. 

The seeds of this effort stretch back several years. Former president Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010), a right-wing leader who US officials believed had ties to Colombian paramilitary groups responsible for human rights atrocities, has spent years forming extensive contacts with various Repblican politicians in Florida, from Senator Marco Rubio to freshman Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar, whom Uribe endorsed during her congressional campaign last year. Senators from Uribe’s Centro Democrático party — including Juan David Vélez and María Fernanda Cabal — openly campaigned for Trump, while Trump’s advisors, including Cuban-American Mercedes Schlapp, took a page from Uribe’s campaign playbook by helping to engineer anti-socialist messaging in an attempt to garner votes for Trump from Cuban, Colombian, and Venezuelan diaspora communities in South Florida. These efforts represent an unprecedented level of intervention by the Colombian Right in US politics and an effort by the Colombian government to expand its foreign policy ambitions by influencing electoral outcomes in other countries throughout the Americas. 

Uribe himself is a highly polarizing figure in Colombia and the region. Though he left office with high approval ratings, his administration oversaw massive human rights abuses. Under Uribe, Colombian military and paramilitary groups, often working in tandem, were involved in numerous massacres of unarmed civilians. A number of Uribe’s family members and close allies have reportedly had close relations with paramilitary forces and Uribe himself allegedly helped create one of Colombia’s most brutal paramilitary groups in the 1990s. 

Uribe has continuously campaigned against the peace agreement with the FARC insurgency, and he and his allies have sought to block its implementation since its approval by Colombia’s congress in 2016. Hindered by term limits that prevented him from again seeking the presidency, Uribe chose former Inter-American Development Bank official Iván Duque as his standard-bearer for the 2018 election, and Duque — who won the election — is widely considered to be Uribe’s stand-in.  

Since leaving the presidency, Uribe has become embroiled in a variety of corruption scandals linked to his time in office, and was sentenced to house arrest in 2020. Within months he was released, reportedly due in part to strong pressure exerted by then US vice president Mike Pence and Florida Republicans. President Trump Tweeted a congratulatory message to Uribe when his arrest was suspended. 

It should come as no surprise then that Uribe, Duque, and the Colombian Right threw in their lot with Trump and Florida’s Republicans. They share the common goals of ousting Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, by nearly any means. Trump, in addition to implementing sweeping new economic sanctions against Venezuela, took a hard-line approach involving threats of military intervention and vigorous support for a possible coup against Maduro by Venezuela’s armed forces. Duque is likewise a Venezuela hawk who has called for more sanctions on Venezuela, and has been accused of allowing dissident Venezuelan military troops to train in Colombian territory and to launch an ill-fated invasion of Venezuela in early 2020. 

Given this close alignment of views on Venezuela, it isn’t surprising to see Republicans in South Florida embrace some of the charged rhetoric used by the Right in Colombia. Alongside allegations of “socialism” used against Florida Democrats, the charge of castrochavismo (“Castro-Chávism,” referring to a supposed joint political project linking the Castro brothers and Hugo Chávez) has become increasingly frequent. In October 2016, following the defeat of the peace deal in the 2016 referendum, Uribe campaigned against the peace agreement’s ratification by the Colombian Congress at the popular Colombian restaurant Mondongo’s in heavily Venezuelan and Colombian Doral, Florida. Flanked by Republican politicians including Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, Uribe whipped up a crowd of Colombian expats by warning that castrochavismo would come to Colombia were the agreement ratified. Several reports have suggested this was the moment when South Florida Republicans realized that the castrochavismo label might prove effective among Cuban, Colombian, and Venezuelan-Americans — ever more important voting blocs in Florida. As Colombian-American political analyst Juan Pablo Salas put it: “The lessons that Uribismo learned from the referendum in Colombia have been translated to Republicans, who have had no problem applying them in South Florida.”

It is no coincidence then that the 2018 campaigns in Florida and Colombia featured nearly identical red-baiting tactics: Republican candidate Ron DeSantis frequently referred to Democrat Andrew Gillum as a “socialist,” and warned that if elected Gillum would turn Florida into a “second Venezuela.” Uribe had himself used the same exact rhetoric before, warning in 2016 that the peace deal would transform Colombia into a “second Venezuela,” and fear mongering over left politicians seeking to turn their countries into “another Venezuela” has become a common right-wing political tactic throughout Latin America, employed against figures including Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Fernando Haddad in Brazil. Unsurprisingly, when left politician Gustavo Petro ran against Duque for the presidency in 2018, Colombians were told that Petro, if elected, would do the same. 

At the same time DeSantis was calling Gillum a dangerous “socialist,” Duque was using the same rhetoric against Petro, 1,500 miles away. DeSantis went on to narrowly defeat Gillum, while 70 percent of Colombian-Americans who voted in the Colombian election from abroad voted for Duque over Petro, as compared to 54 percent in Colombia. The supposed menace of Maduro’s (and before him Chávez’s) Venezuela has increasingly become a useful tool not only in Colombia, but in Florida and US politics as well. 

The red-baiting only grew more shrill in 2020, with the Trump campaign running multiple ads claiming that Joe Biden was the preferred candidate of the Venezuelan government. Trump likewise attacked Biden for supposedly being supported by Gustavo Petro, announcing: “Biden is weak on socialism and will betray Colombia,” in a transparent effort to attract pro-Duque Colombians living in Florida and elsewhere. Schlapp, the Trump advisor, released a video in which she claimed that Gustavo Petro supported Biden, and that “Biden has surrounded himself with socialists like [Petro], including Bernie Sanders and the communist [sic] Karen Bass.” 

At the same time, Trump received the endorsement of members of Uribe’s party, including Senator María Fernanda Cabal and Representative Juan David Vélez, who represents Colombians abroad, while Uribe himself weighed in to endorse the ultimately victorious Maria Elvira Salazar’s campaign for a congressional seat representing suburban Miami.

Donald Trump attacks Joseph Biden in a Tweet by saying Biden is supported by Colombia's Gustavo Petro.

By all accounts, these efforts worked well among Colombian, Venezuelan, and Cuban voters in Florida. Some of Trump’s largest gains in the entire country were in South Florida, and especially in heavy Colombian and Venezuelan towns like Doral and Weston (Trump improved in Doral by over 30 percent compared to his 2016 performance). Overall, Trump won Florida by 3.3 percentage points (compared to 1.2 percentage points in 2016), while the GOP picked up two House seats. Exit polls reported that Trump won 46 percent of the Latino vote in Florida, a much higher proportion than his national total (32 percent). It should also be emphasized that Trump’s overall margin in Florida expanded while he actually lost ground among white voters, as compared to 2016 (62 percent, vs. 64 percent in 2016). 

It is clear that the Colombian Right, led by Álvaro Uribe and Iván Duque,is prepared to go to significant lengths to bolster its allies abroad. As one Colombian analyst argued: “Duque has seriously compromised the privileged relationship he has with the United States.” Indeed, Democrats took notice of these efforts: two Democratic Congressmen, new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Gregory Meeks, and Ruben Gallego penned an October 2020 op-ed calling on Vélez and Fernanda Cabal to refrain from further campaigning for Trump: “we have a very clear message for our Colombian counterparts: Show us the respect of staying out of our elections.” 

That was last year. This year, Duque and his right-wing allies are at it again: this time in neighboring Ecuador, where presidential elections are underway, and a left-leaning candidate is the front runner.  

Coming up next: “How the Colombian Right’s Smear Campaign has Rocked Ecuador’s Presidential Election”

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