The Cadivi rackets are much harder to quantify. It has a long history of schemes and variety, but each one of them has its peculiarities and details that make it difficult to quantify. There is, of course, the statement made by both former Minister Giordani and the former President of the Venezuelan Central Bank Edmee Betancourt, that in 2012 alone, “briefcase companies” (Compañías de Maletín) had received US$ 20 billion for imports that never materialized in what is in the end the ultimate corruption scam: Get foreign currency at Bs. 6.3 to import stuff that you will not even attempt to bring into the country. Sell enough of the foreign currency at the parallel rate, which is about ten times larger to pay the Bolívars and you keep the rest in foreign currency.
Nice work if you can get it.
But let’s look a little bit at the history of rackets within Cadivi. There are many stages in them. Like so many of the rackets of the Bolivarian revolution, they started small and grew and became even more daring:
-The bring the empty container racket.
This is the earliest racket I remember hearing about. You would get some foreign currency to import something, say barrels of some expensive chemical compound use in some industrial process. Bring a few hundred barrels of the stuff with invoices and bills of lading and the like, but the containers only have water. Or bring containers of empty computer boxes. Something that has value added, so the profit is maximized.
This particular racket required little or no participation of Government authorities at CADIVI. You brought bona fide import permits; you maybe even brought a small fraction of the stuff. You just needed to pay the National Guards and the custom employees when the stuff arrived so that it would no be checked thoroughly (A couple of times mistakes were made, empty containers were discovered).
My favorite anecdote of this was overheard in a business class commercial aircraft leaving Hong Kong by a Venezuelan flying next to some pro-Government importers who had no inkling there was another Venezuelan nearby. One guy explained to the other one how he had imported 400,000 key chains made in China with a Chavez’ figurine, for which he got from Cadivi two dollars a piece. The key chain actually cost only 10 or 15 cents, giving the loudmouth a huge profit. On top of that, he boasted, he gave the key chains to the same military official that helped him get the foreign currency for the racket, to use in Chavez’ 2006 Presidential campaign.
You see, in these earlier rackets, those involved had to basically fake the imports, because the difference between the official rate of exchange and the parallel arte was not huge, thus leaving little room for charging commissions and the like.
These type of racket is very hard to quantify but at some point the Government claim to be investigating some of them in the 100-200 million dollar range. How many were there? Hard to tell. Let’s say only a few, five to six in the US$ 100 million range. Total, less than a billion. Let’s round it off at a billion.
-The pay to get your dollars racket.
This was the second stage racket, when Government officials got involved. It started small time, when differences between the Cadivi rate and the parallel arte were small, but then it grew and grew. By the time that the exchange rate was increased to Bs. 4.3 per US$ and the parallel rate was Bs. 6+, Cadivi officials were asking for Bs. 1 to “ease” your way. Once the swap market disappeared in 2010, Bs.1 or 2 was the norm. Once companies fell in for it and started paying, it was the only way to get their Cadivi dollars.
During the last two years, as the parallel rate soared from around Bs. 10 per US$ to Bs. 80 and counting, the number of Bs. Charged for Cadivi dollars by officials or intermediaries “gestores” simply grew.
It is tough to quantify how big this racket has been. The commissions charged were only a fraction of the parallel dollar, but the dollars affected were in the billions. My guess is that at least US$ 10 billion of the US$ 40 to 60 billion a year in imports from 2009 to 2013 was flowing only if it was grease appropriately. Assume a 10% commission (of the parallel dollar, which set the pace of the size of the commissions) and you are talking at least US$ 1 billion per year from about 2007 to 2013. US$ 6 billion more.
And there were 7 billion…
-The Briefcase companies rip-off (Empresas de maletin)
Note that as CADIVI grew, more and more military officials were sent there. At all levels. Soon, they got more and more involved with it.
As El Nacional has reported in its investigative reporting on Cadivi, soon retired military “friends” with active military starting founding companies to import stuff. Flight by night operations began springing up all over the place. There were two types: a) Those that were created to import stuff for real b) Those that were created to apply for the foreign currency and never bring anything to the country.
In between these two, there were other side business, such as the purchase and sale of companies already registered in RUSAD, a prerequisite for obtaining Cadivi, Sitme and now Sicad 1 dollars. The same with the sale of certificates of no local production, another prerequisite to receiving Cadivi dollars. Just trading these generated a lot of wealth for those involved.
But it was not until Giordani suggested that the fake imports were about US$ 20 billion in 2013 that we got an inkling of the magnitude of the rip-off. (Can´t call it racket, it is so huge). In fact, the only reason one could have thought that something like that was going on at the time, was the fact that despite close to US$ 60 billion in imports, there were shortages of many products. If traditional importers were not getting dollars for say, toilet paper, then someone was getting the foreign currency and not bringing the stuff.
In order to quantify it, is tough to know exactly when it started or the magnitude. Let’s first estimate how long it went on for. My assumption is that this rip-off started when or around the time when Chávez got sick. It built up and had its crowning glory the year Giordani referred to as having US$ 20 billion in fake imports. Thus, this appears to have built up over a year and half. I will assume then that whatever estimate I reach for the year Giordani said was US$ 20 billion, there was about half as much the year before. Half, because Chávez got sick in May 2011 and I imagine they got bolder as time went on.
Well, pro-Government economist Manuel Sutherland has looked at the import numbers and his conclusion is as follows: Up to the beginning of exchange controls, the average price per kilo imported was roughly one dollar, year after year. It never deviated from this empirically. Never mind that the mixture of cars, paper products, automobiles or whatever was, this never changed.
Well, he argues, it started changing in 2005 and by 2013, 17 billion kilos of “stuff” were imported, but instead of costing the canonical US$ 17 billion of the ten years prior to 2004, the cost went up by almost a factor of three to US$ 47 billion. Sutherland (or someone else during his talk) says that there is no justification for the change. The mix of imports has changed little and the prices tend to scale anyway. At most, only 50% of the increase can be attributed to a possible change in the mix, or in the type of things being imported.
Thus, if 50% of the price increase can be attribute to over prices, inflation and the change in the mix, then each kilo would cost at most US$ 1.5. But each kilo cost US$ 2.76. This means that of the US$ 47 billion, around US$ 23 billion could not be justified. (Curiously, Edmee Betancourt’s number was US$ 22 billion). A large fraction of this went “empresas de maletin”.
Thus, if you are generous, want to be conservative in the estimates, if this is all empresas de maletin, we are talking about some US$ 33 billion in the rip-off in 2011 and 2012.
In the interest of underestimating things, I will only add a couple of billion before that, from 2004 to 2011 to fake imports.
Which means that very quickly, we are up to US$ 42 billion.
There are many other rackets around imports that I cannot quantify. Overprices is one. Government imports is another, just from 2003 to 2013, the Government went from importing US$ 3.5 billion to importing US$ 34 billion. This is a factor of ten. Nobody knows in what. There are rackets in there, we do not even understand or imagine. But if I can not assign a number to it, I will just ignore it for our purpose.
US$ 42 billion…US$ 23 billion in 2012 alone, do you think those controlling that want to give up that type of racket?