Electoral Observer Sells Food to the Government of Maduro

Gassan Salama, a Palestinian-cause activist, born in Colombia and naturalized Panamanian, frequently posts messages supporting the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions on his social media accounts. But that leaning is not the main sign to doubt his impartiality as an observer of the elections in Venezuela, a role he played in the contested elections whereby Nicolás Maduro ratified himself as president. In fact, Salama, an entrepreneur and politician who has carried out controversial searches for submarine wrecks in Caribbean waters, found his true treasure in the main social aid and control program of Chavismo, the Clap, for which he receives millions of euros.

27 January 2019

Gassan Salama Ibrahim was one of the few international observers in the elections of May 20, 2018, whereby Nicolás Maduro was re-elected president of the Republic in a process most of the Venezuelan opposition and a large part of the international community did not recognize. On the day the National Electoral Council (CNE) accredited him as an "international observer," which today looks like the genesis of the political-institutional crisis in the country, Gassan Salama was already a partner of the Maduro Government in the business of selling food for the state program of the Local Supply and Production Committee (Clap) with his company Lido Internacional S.A.

On March 6, 2018, ship Maersk Wismar arrived at the port of La Guaira, near Caracas, with 766 tons of food in 30 containers shipped by Lido Internacional from the port of Manzanillo, in Panama, as per documents of the National Integrated Customs and Tax Administration Service (Seniat). The products included mayonnaise, rice and corn flour, three of the eleven items usually included in the CLAP combos that the Government distributes in poor areas. On April 23, a month before Gassan Salama appeared in Caracas with his international observer vest, his company sent another 620 tons of food in ship San Alessio, according to the customs authority.

The consignee of both shipments was Corporación Única de Servicios Productivos y Alimentarios (Sole Corporation of Productive and Food Services - Cuspal), attached to the Ministry of Food, though they were contracted by the Venezuelan Foreign Trade Corporation (Corpovex), a holding responsible for centralizing public imports. Although the corresponding contract of this delivery could not be checked, Lido International does appear on a list of Corpovex contractors, which Armando.info had access to, containing the names of several food suppliers of the program that Nicolás Maduro made official in March 2016 in response to what he calls the "economic war" by the national entrepreneurship and international factors.

Gassan Salama's company has also stood out in the information exchanged in the meetings held since last year by officials of financial intelligence units from several countries in the region to investigate possible corrupt practices in the Venezuelan Government's business. Based on this information, between last year’s January and August, Lido Internacional exports to Venezuela amounted to almost 3,500 tons.

On November 17, 2017 alone, Gassan Salama's company received payments from the Government for almost two million euros related to the "acquisition of food combos." In January 2018, there was another draft for 1.8 million euros, according to sources in Corpovex. The supply for the Claps was not the first business of Lido Internacional with Maduro. In October 2018, the authorities paid the Panamanian company another 9.7 million euros as payment for contract 0135, initially signed with Corpovex in 2016 for the sale of raw sugar. "To be honest, I do not have any information about it. I would have to ask the owner, but he is not in the country," say the Lido Internacional offices in Panama when asked about the issue.

A Biased Observer

In the social media accounts of this entrepreneur of Arab origin, born in Colombia and naturalized Panamanian in 2001, there are no signs of his business with Chavismo. On the other hand, there are many messages of support for Hugo Chávez, Adán Chávez (brother of the deceased president), Nicolás Maduro, or Fidel Castro, as well as photos in emblematic places of the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions, of which he declares himself a fervent defender. There is also evidence of his participation as an international observer in the electoral process of May 20.

"It is a pleasure to be invited to Venezuela as an international observer, especially when I am being invited as a Palestinian for such a significant democratic act," he wrote on Twitter that day. The message is accompanied by a photo where he appears wearing a red polo shirt and the brown CNE vest next to former president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa. He also published a video taken from the platform at the Miraflores Palace, seat of the Government in Caracas, where Nicolás Maduro celebrated his disputed victory.

"Congratulations to the Venezuelan people on their elections. I hope the countries of the region understand that four elections took place within ten months in Venezuela. The people are sovereign and decided," he praised when posting the video on the media. It is not clear if the video was made by Gassan Salama, just a few meters from Maduro and mixed among the ministers and heads of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). However, there is more evidence of his closeness to Chavismo figures. In December 2016, he was honored by the then governor of Táchira – south-western Venezuelan Andes -, José Gregorio Vielma Mora, also a retired Army officer and former head of the tax control agency under the presidency of Hugo Chávez. On the same day that Vielma Mora awarded the "highest order of excellence of the state Táchira" to his wife and valued the members of the State Coral on its fortieth anniversary, he also awarded Gassan Salama the Order of Merit of Work.

"In recognition of his effort and dedication, and his outstanding professional, labor, trade, business, academic, cultural and social activities focused on the service and benefit of the public and private administration, the municipality, and also the State of Táchira and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,", states the award. There is hardly any evidence of his business activity in the Venezuelan registers. It is a company with the same name of the company used to sell food for Claps, registered in Caracas in 2005. It only has two employees and, according to the National Register of Contractors (RNC), there is no evidence that it has signed agreements with the State or processed preferential currencies in the extinct Currency Administration Commission (Cadivi). The office is in a small building in Las Mercedes, a commercial area east of the Venezuelan capital, where no one answers the doorbell.

Still, the recognition by Vielma Mora, who in his youth participated in the coup attempt of 1992 led by Hugo Chávez and until months ago was a minister of Nicolás Maduro, does not seem unplanned. Vielma Mora was a key player in the birth of the Clap as a massive program. In late 2016, Cobiserta, a company attached to the state government of Táchira, signed a first contract with Group Grand Limited, a company registered in Hong Kong and managed by Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas, for the purchase of ten million Clap combos. In the end, the duo of the Colombian entrepreneurs, now investigated in countries like Colombia and Mexico, became the main importer for the state program, being awarded at least two contracts for nearly 800 million dollars.

That was the beginning of a program that was planned to produce food locally, as small partisan cells, but led to massive imports through intermediaries handpicked by the Government. Until 2017, they bought the food combos mainly in Mexico and then resold them to Venezuela at prices ranging from 34 to 39 dollars for each Clap box. But since last year, companies from Turkey began to gain ground through these intermediaries, while the authorities of Caracas narrowed their political and commercial relationship with the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has become one of their main global allies. Even Lido Internacional has purchased food from Mexican and Turkish manufacturers, according to panjiva.com, a database specialized in international trade.

The few official figures indicate that the Clap is a business that has continued to grow. In 2018, the Government distributed 114 million Clap boxes, in addition to the 91 million distributed in 2017, which would be equal to spending 6,000 to 8,000 million dollars in just two years. "114 million Clap combos were distributed nationwide, groceries at your door. The slogan should be ‘The Clap arrived!’ The revolution brings the groceries right to your door!" said Maduro recently.

Now it is known that Lido Internacional, the company of Gassan Salama, had a portion of that juicy pie. His company, like FB Foods LLC and Wellsford Trading Corp, two other Panamanian Clap suppliers, escaped the commercial veto imposed by the Venezuelan Government in last year’s April against almost one hundred companies of the isthmus, after Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela sanctioned 55 Venezuelan officials. "Back in 2016, Panama promoted the sale of food to the sister nation of the Republic of Venezuela. Now, strangely, you want to discredit the food supply that Panamanian companies are developing," Salama criticized through a tweet posted on July 14, 2018, with a photo where former minister Miguel Pérez Abad and former president of Corpovex Giuseppe Yoffreda agreed with Panamanian authorities to purchase food for the Clap.

The Treasure Hunter

While Gassan Salama is virtually unknown to the general public in Venezuela, that is not the case in Panama. For years, he has moved between politics and the business world. After being president of the Chamber of Commerce, Agriculture and Industry of Colon - the Caribbean port of Panama that hosts a prosperous duty-free zone - from 2000 to 2002, he became governor of that province in 2003. "As former Governor of the province of Colon, Panama, and as son of the Palestinian Revolution, I reiterate our deepest affection to you, Commander Fidel, and the Cuban people," Salama wrote in 2004 on the Granma, the official Cuban newspaper.

Besides Lido Internacional, Gassan Salama is related to eight additional companies, almost all registered in Colon. The "Palestinian cause" is another of its banners and it powers a number of organizations that promote Palestinian ties with Latin America. In addition to Venezuela, he has taken his business to Cuba and Bolivia. "His links with these countries are as political as they are commercial," explain Panamanian sources.

His role as an entrepreneur does not escape controversy. Gassan Salama is related to Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo (IMDI), created 19 years ago in the province of Colon and accused of plundering the wreckage of the galleon San José, a Spanish ship sunk in 1631 in the Gulf of Panama. Between 2013 and 2014, the company rescued a treasure of silver coins that were eventually confiscated by the National Customs Service. On July 5, 2012, La Prensa newspaper referred to the work of IMDI ??as "treasure hunters without control" and warned that "IMDI may have taken gold, silver or objects from ships that were wrecked there (waters near Contadora), without declaring them and thus the National Institute of Culture (Inac) could not determine if they were to be preserved in museums, in case they have historical value." That release assured that Gassan Salama, as vice president of IMDI, ??stated that "to date, there is no rescue to report."

Years later, a Unesco report of December 7, 2015 indicated IMDI’s responsibility?? in the case of San José. According to the review made by La Prensa newspaper on that report, the actions of the company were a "simple operation of extraction of objects masked in an allegedly archaeological project" and that "the activities carried out by IMDI ??could have affected more than a sunken wreck in the area of ??the Pearl archipelago."

In the third the contentious-administrative court of the Panamanian Supreme Court of Justice are two files related to the work of IMDI. So far that does not seem to have been an obstacle for Gassan Salama to continue his business in Panama and abroad. On June 21, 2018, just a month after he participated as an international observer in the Venezuelan elections, the Panamanian entrepreneur met with the Minister for Regional Integration Policies of the Dominican Republic, as one of the representatives of the construction company China State Construction Engineering Corporation Ltd (Cscec) to assess potential investments in the Caribbean country. "The group was made up of Zhihe Zhang, Sui Man, Kevin Zhao, Zaid Yaafar and Gassan Salama," reported the presidential bulletin of the Dominican Republic.

The search for new businesses does not prevent him from paying close attention to the political-institutional crisis that exists in Venezuela. On January 25, two days after the Venezuelan opposition proclaimed Juan Guaidó - president of the National Assembly with an opposition
majority -, as the interim president of the Republic, Gassan Salama expressed his criticism on Twitter. "Democracies are for those who understand it, not for those who lose elections and continue plotting coups. Long live democracy and long live Venezuela. Only the Venezuelan people will resolve their differences internally."

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