Venezuelan crisis plays out in Wellington horse country
WELLINGTON, Fla. (AP) — In a large house on Sunnyland Lane, deep in Wellington’s exclusive horse country, Alejandro Andrade and his family enjoy a life far from the hardships faced today by people in their home country of Venezuela.
Andrade, a former bodyguard to late president Hugo Chavez before rising to the rank of Venezuela’s national treasurer, has lived since at least 2012 in a 9,000-square-foot house with five bedrooms, marble floors and a swimming pool a few miles from the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
The six-acre spread in the gated Palm Beach Point development also has a large barn for some of the 60 horses he owns. With names like Bon Jovi and Armani Z, the horses are often ridden by his son Emanuel Andrade, an Olympic equestrian whose social media accounts have made him a target for Spanish-language gossip sites that have poked fun at his jet-setting lifestyle with celebrities such as the American model Kendall Jenner and the matriarch of the Kardashian clan, Kris Jenner.
But the lavish comforts haven’t completely insulated Andrade from the political and humanitarian crisis unfolding in his home country, where children are dying of malnutrition and people are rioting because of dire conditions under the government of President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ successor.
Repercussions from the deepening crisis have breached Andrade’s world 1,400 miles away in Wellington, often behind the scenes but sometimes in public.
Local Venezuelans protesting conditions at home have held demonstrations near his house. And Andrade has had strained relationships with other Venezuelans in Wellington’s equestrian community, creating friction that has ensnared equestrian mogul Mark Bellissimo and attracted the attention of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Now, Andrade is facing a far more serious threat that critics say has been long overdue.
Federal authorities in South Florida are building a massive money-laundering case against him, The Miami Herald reported, to the delight of local Venezuelans who have long questioned Andrade’s lavish lifestyle.
Andrade, 53, is suspected of laundering millions of dollars stolen from the Venezuelan government to invest in real estate, show horses and other assets in South Florida, The Herald reported March 31.
Andrade and several other people in Venezuela’s government, banking and business sectors are suspected of enriching themselves by selling billions of dollars in bonds, capitalizing on fluctuating exchange rates and hiding their profits in Swiss bank accounts and U.S. investments, according to The Herald.
An investigative journalist, Casto Ocando, tweeted in late March that Andrade was “accused” or “indicted” in U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg’s West Palm Beach courtroom in December.
A criminal docket, sealed on Dec. 22 by Rosenberg, doesn’t name the defendant in a conspiracy to commit money laundering case brought by the federal government. But it lists the defendant’s lawyer as Curtis Miner, a former federal prosecutor who The Herald has reported represents Andrade. It is unknown whether Andrade is the defendant named in the sealed indictment.
About the accusations, Otto Reich, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 1986 to 1989 who now runs an international consulting firm, said, “I’m not surprised. I know that he has been followed very closely by U.S. law enforcement for the last few years.
“But I have to tell you,” Reich added, “that although he is reported to be one of the wealthiest of Chavez’ business partners, he is far from the only one. South Florida is crawling with Venezuelan boligarchs.”
“Boligarchs” — a play off “oligarchs” and the 19th-century liberation hero Simon Bolivar, a personal hero to Chavez — is a term created by Venezuelans to describe leaders or business partners who worked with Chavez.
Andrade could not be reached. His defense attorney, former federal prosecutor, Curtis Miner, did not respond to messages for comment. Emanuel Andrade, 21, hung up on a reporter who called seeking comment.
Hugo Chavez’ bodyguard
Andrade is well known in Wellington’s equestrian circles, where he has worked with Bellissimo, who runs the Winter Equestrian Festival as chief executive of Equestrian Sports Productions. In 2013, Andrade helped sponsor the festival, according to Ocando’s 2014 book “Chavistas in the Empire: Secrets, Tactics and Scandals of the Bolivarian Revolution in the United States.”
Andrade also has raised suspicion from local Venezuelans questioning how a man who started working as Chavez’ bodyguard could afford the Wellington home and luxuries described in published reports, such as a private plane and partnership in a South Carolina horse farm.
“It is impossible for a public officer of the Venezuelan government to afford a house like that in Wellington and to purchase 60 horses for his son,” said Franklin Hoet-Linares, an attorney from Venezuela who lives a few miles from Andrade.
“He is morally obligated to demonstrate that the money is legal. He only has a history of being the bodyguard of Chavez and then later the general treasurer.”
Hoet-Linares is an officer with the World Jurist Association, an international group of lawyers, judges and professors. He said the association wants to draft an international treaty to recover money stolen from the Venezuelan government accounts and then spend it on rebuilding the country.
Hoet-Linares said he spoke to Andrade two years ago at a party in Wellington about cooperating with the WJA but didn’t get an answer.
“I looked directly in his eyes and I told him, ‘We need to talk. It is in your best interests to talk about these things.’ He said he would contact me in the future because he was getting ready to travel. He never did,” Hoet-Linares said.
Lost his eye at presidential palace
Andrade’s close connection to Chavez goes back to the day when the leader of the “Bolivarian Revolution” almost took out his friend’s right eye while playing “chapita” — a game like baseball played with soda caps and a broomstick — at the presidential palace, media reports and local Venezuelans say.
Andrade eventually had his damaged eye replaced with a glass one, Hoet-Linares said. But Chavez supposedly felt guilty about the accident and started showing Andrade favor during his years in power.
Andrade, who graduated from the country’s Military Academy, participated in Chávez’ 1992 failed coup attempt against the president, according to The Herald. Six years later, when Chávez ran successfully for president, Andrade served as his bodyguard.
By 2007, he was named national treasurer and, a year later, president of the state-owned bank, Bandes.
As treasurer, Andrade was listed on Venezuela’s bank accounts with Swiss-based HSBC. Those accounts were used to secretly deposit billions of dollars in public money, according to a 2015 report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. At one point, the account held $11.9 billion, but by the time Andrade became treasurer, the account linked to his name held $698 million, the documents showed.
HSBC was fined $1.9 billion by the U.S. government in 2012 for allowing drug traffickers, politicians and other customers to launder their money through its bank branches in the United States.
While it’s not illegal to have accounts in Switzerland, Venezuela’s accounts with HSBC raised questions about whether Chávez and his cronies were pilfering public money.
Andrade left the treasurer’s job and the presidency of Bandes in 2010. It’s unclear when he first arrived in Palm Beach County, but public records put him in Wellington as early as 2012.
The Sunnyland Lane house where Andrade lives is not listed in his name on public records. The house was purchased for $4.75 million in January 2012 by Telsey Properties Holding LLC, which was formed in Wellington in December 2011.
The only names associated with Telsey in state records are a Wellington lawyer and an accountant, who could not be reached for comment. However, state records also show that Telsey has the same South Shore Boulevard address as Doble A Farm, a company formed in 2014 by the same Wellington lawyer who is listed as Telsey’s registered agent, Francisco J. Gonzalez.
In May 2014, Doble A Farm bought two, 4-acre properties on 46th Lane South, immediately east of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, and about 2½ miles from Sunnyland Lane, for $1.5 million each. The deeds were prepared by Gonzalez. Social media postings show Andrade family members participating in Doble A riding events.
Son pulled out a knife
Local law enforcement records list the Sunnyland Lane house as Andrade’s residence. Some of those records include traffic violations involving Emanuel Andrade.
Andrade’s 26-year-old daughter, Maria, lives with her family in a house next door to her father on Sunnyland Lane, according to a 2016 traffic citation issued to Maria’s husband. The six-bedroom house, which is not listed in her family’s name, was purchased in June 2012 for $3.5 million by Alvaro Fernaud of Fort Lauderdale, property records show.
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies were called to Alejandro Andrade’s house late one night in May 2016 when Emanuel pulled out a knife after getting into an argument with his father, according to a report.
A deputy arrived to find Emanuel sitting on a fountain in front of the house. “Emanuel said he was upset because he is tired of his father, Alejandro Andrade, controlling him,” a deputy wrote in a report.
In another police report, Emanuel Andrade was accused of verbally threatening the daughter of a Venezuelan horse-jumping course designer who has been outspoken about corruption in his home country.
Maria F. Palacios, 43, told a PBSO deputy she was attending the Winter Equestrian Festival on Feb. 12, 2017, when she was approached in a VIP area by a professional horse rider later identified as Emanuel Andrade.
“Andrade walked over to her and stated in Spanish ’Stop taking photos of me or I’ll (expletive) you” and he walked away,” the report says.
Palacios, who told deputies she knows Andrade from Venezuela, said she walked away and consulted her father, who told her to call the police.
Maria Palacios told the deputy that she and her father had “left Venezuela because of political issues and controversy against her family and she believes that this is why he approached her in this manner. She felt threatened,” the report said.
The deputy told Palacios she is free to take photographs in public settings, but he also told her that the harsh words did not meet the legal definition of a threat.
“She advised me that she just wanted this documented in case of any retaliation later on,” the deputy wrote.
Palacios is the daughter of Leopoldo Palacios, who grew up in Caracas and at one point knew Alejandro Andrade.
Leopoldo Palacios, who would not comment for this story, has been outspoken on social media about the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. He has told friends that he suspects Andrade of pressuring Bellissimo to ban or restrict Leopoldo’s participation in Wellington equestrian events. Bellissimo could not be reached for comment.
Protesters outside gated community
In March 2014, about 20 people protesting the conditions in Venezuela tried to hold a demonstration in front of Andrade’s house in Wellington. But they only got to the gated entrance to Palm Beach Point, about 2 miles from the house.
Still, they caught the attention of people in the Sunnyland Lane house. A woman in the house called the police to complain that the protesters were blocking the entrance to the development.
When deputies arrived at the site, they saw demonstrators in the grass near the entrance to the Wellington Dog Park. One person had a bull horn and others held Venezuelan flags and large banners with messages including “Together for Venezuela” and “Stop the corruption and the murder.” Other signs held by the protesters read, “Andrade Thief Corrupt.”
“The group appeared to demonstrate peacefully with no violence or aggression of any kind,” a PBSO report said.
Soraya Exposito, a Wellington yoga instructor who attended the protest, said the demonstration was held because Andrade was hosting a party that day. She said the protesters aimed their messages at party guests as they arrived at the gate, but they were disappointed they couldn’t get closer to the house.
“At least it was cathartic. For us, the purpose was to expose him in the community. This guy is having a great life here and yet he’s telling people in Venezuela that being poor is OK,” said Exposito, who left Venezuela in 1990.
“It’s really difficult to see people like him living here with his high lifestyle when everything is collapsing in Venezuela and the only reason he is here is because of his connections to Chavez. It’s just really a slap in the face.”
But the demonstrators have not returned to that spot since 2014. Exposito said local Venezuelans can’t afford to spend time away from work because many of them are adjusting to their new lives in Palm Beach County.
Staff researcher Melanie Mena and staff writers Jorge Milian and Mike Stucka contributed to this story.
Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, http://www.pbpost.com