In the Caribbean, a Buoy Floats for Chavismo's Finances

A small bank in Antigua and Barbuda, but controlled by Venezuelans, is at the center of some of the financial operations of Nicolas Maduro’s regime. Created in 2008 and with a diffuse trace for years, North International Bank began to take off in 2016 when it was authorized to operate in Caracas. Since then, it has been channeling millions of dollars to and from the coffers of the revolutionary ‘nomenklatura.’

In the absence of an air bridge, there is a financial corridor between Venezuela, Antigua and Barbuda. Millions of dollars associated with contracts of the Chavismo with cash shell companies and correspondent operations pass through some small banks in the also small island nation of the Lesser Antilles. At the same time, and in equal measure, the relationship between the governments of Nicolas Maduro and Gaston Browne is growing closer.

One of such banks is the North International Bank (NIB), based in Antigua, but controlled by Venezuelan executives. In August 2016, the Venezuelan Superintendency of Banking Institutions (Sudeban) authorized the bank to appoint a representative in Caracas. “Promoting and informing Venezuelan residents of the products and services” that the bank “may offer” was one of the justifications of the Venezuelan banking regulator for granting the license contained in Official Gazette 40.970 of August 19, 2016.

At the time when the authorization was given, the United States had not applied economic sanctions against the chavista regime. However, Maduro’s administration was quick to use the services of North International Bank as a correspondent bank for state financial entities, such as Banco del Tesoro or Banco del Desarrollo Social (Bandes), and for the millionaire payments to intermediaries contracted to supply food for the Local Supply and Production Committees (Clap). Antigua is one of the jurisdictions with the highest banking secrecy, according to the index of the NGO Tax Justice Network.

For example, just eleven months after the approval by Sudeban, $425 million of a payment from Nicolas Maduro’s government to Group Grand Limited began passing through a bank account in North International Bank. Group Grand Limited is the company registered in Hong Kong behind which Colombian businessmen Alex Saab Moran and Alvaro Pulido Vargas hid in order to control imports for the Claps with Mexican products, from the very beginning of the state plan devised by Maduro. 

The details of that transaction are in contract CPVX-CJ-CONT-0086-2017 entered into by and between the state-owned Corporacion Venezolana de Comercio Exterior (Corpovex) (Venezuelan Foreign Trade Corporation), responsible for centralizing public imports, and the Hong Kong company. The document shows North International Bank and the Dutch Rabobank as channels of the transaction that would end in the coffers of Group Grand Limited, 50% of which was paid in advance.

The contract also shows that the Colombian duo,  widely favored by Nicolas Maduro with millionaire businesses since 2013, charged $37 for each Clap box, $3 more than for each combo from a previous contract. A year later, in October 2018, the Attorney General’s Office of Mexico reported irregularities, like overbilling or poor quality of the shipments of Group Grand Limited for the Venezuelan government.

At the time of the agreement, signed by Air Force Major General Giuseppe Yoffreda, representing Corpovex, neither Saab nor Pulido had been included on the Ofac’ list of those sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, nor had they been accused of money laundering in a South Florida court, events that occurred in mid-2019. Nor had the Italian Guardia Di Finanza frozen their assets, as it did in last year’s November.

However, had revealed by then that Colombian businessmen were camouflaging behind Group Grand Limited. A few years earlier, the Ecuadorian Attorney General’s Office accused them of several crimes allegedly committed with company Fondo Global de Construccion. In 2011, the businessmen duo had signed through this same company a multi-million dollar contract with the government of Hugo Chavez to build prefabricated homes in popular areas, which marked the beginning of the golden era of their business with the self-styled Bolivarian Revolution and the process took Alex Saab to the Miraflores palace in one of his few public appearances.

Group Grand Limited’s is not the only financial transaction linked to the Claps that has passed through jurisdictions known for their financial opacity. Saab and Pulido have personally used companies from the United Arab Emirates, while other intermediaries have received millionaire payments in banks in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

Correspondent Bank ⸺ Allied Government

It is possible that the Caracas government’s preference for North International Bank is because its partners are Venezuelan investors. Or perhaps, Saab and Pulido’s experience in the Antigua and Barbuda jurisdiction - which the Colombian tandem is very familiar with - has been more of a factor. Alex Saab even had a passport as the island’s “economic representative,” issued in 2014, when Prime Minister Gaston Browne had only been in office for a few months. Browne had to give public explanations for the issuance of that document, precisely when the investigations against Saab and Pulido were heating up. “All I can say to the people of Antigua and Barbuda is that if Mr. Saab is accused at any time of any wrongdoing, you can rest assured that we will revoke his appointment,” he said to a local radio station in October 2018.

Browne is a close ally of Maduro, but is not clear if this relationship preceded or went along with the conversion of Antigua and Barbuda into a Chavista financial hub. The relationship began within the framework of the Petrocaribe program, whereby Hugo Chavez managed to seduce many of the English-speaking Caribbean countries, which hold a significant number of votes at the OAS and other international forums. Nonetheless, Browne and Antigua and Barbuda stood out to the point that in 2019, they became full members of Alba (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), the alliance of Bolivarian regimes also created by Chavez but currently in decline.

There is other evidence of the role of North International Bank in the financial tricks of Maduro’s administration. On December 24, 2017, the state-owned Banco del Tesoro wished a “Merry Christmas" to those it called “our correspondent banks.” The entity of Antigua and Barbuda was among the banks greeted, together with the Russian Gazprobank, Italbank International Inc and the Commonwealth Bank & Trust, domiciled in Dominica, another island in the Caribbean.

Deputy Carlos Paparoni, who has been investigating the business behind the imports for the Claps since 2017 and last year was appointed by the interim government of Juan Guaido as “presidential commissioner against terrorism and organized crime,” has also identified North International Bank as “an intermediary bank” in irregular or illegal financial operations of the Maduro regime, where Bandes (Economic and Social Development Bank of Venezuela) has participated. Until 2016, when Sudeban was approved and after eight years from its creation, the trail of North International Bank in Venezuela was rather discreet.

With a Venezuelan Accent

The first North International Bank representative in Caracas, endorsed by Sudeban, was Fidel Antonio Gomez Barrios, who is not known for his experience in financial institutions, saved for his presence in a company registered in Panama in 2008, called Optivalores Servicios Financieros S.A. Fidel Gomez will not be the only Venezuelan behind North International Bank. Actually, his partners and most of his employees are also Venezuelan.

The current partners of the bank are Jordan Alberto Silva Tugues and Carlos Eduardo Sandoval Arocha, both owners of NIB Asesores de Negocios in Caracas. With that company they filed in 2013 with the Autonomous Service of Intellectual Property (Sapi) the rights of the brand of North International Bank in Venezuela, which were granted to them the following year. Both the bank and the Caracas-based NIB Asesores de Negocios were founded in 2008 and have offices in Torre La Castellana, east of Caracas. Fidel Gomez, Jordan Silva and Carlos Sandoval also worked in Caracas for the firm Econoconsult Consultores Asociados.

Carlos Vicente Croes Hernandez was also a partner of North International Bank between 2015 and 2016. “I have never been a director of the bank, only a shareholder,” Croes affirmed. In his Linkedin profile, he stresses that he has “no administrative, managerial or directive responsibility” when referring to his time at the bank.

The face of North International Bank as chairman of the board is Jordan Silva. He was the one who appeared at the signing of a sponsorship agreement with the Spanish first-division soccer club Atletico de Madrid. “The agreement, effective for four years, aims to offer more and better payment options to our team’s fans in South America and the Caribbean, reinforcing their athletic identity and passion for soccer,” the Spanish team said in a statement, describing North International Bank as “a renowned bank" also based in the Dominican Republic, in addition to Antigua and Barbuda.

Yet, there is no trace of the potential operation of North International Bank in the Dominican Republic, not even on the bank’s website or in its promotional channels. Jordan Silva’s résumé also highlights his experience as president of the state-owned Banco Solidario C.A. from 2006 to 2008, as well as executive director of the Federal District Government from 1995 to 1998. When contacted for this report, Silva asked for the questions in writing, but as of the close of this edition, he had not responded.

Sources linked to the financial world explain that it was from 2014, when Sapi authorized the use of the North International Bank brand in the country, that it began to attract clients with the offer of prepaid debit cards in dollars, at a time when the rigid exchange control implemented by Chavism still limited the possibility of having dollars if traveling abroad. In fact, in addition to the use of the brand, Sapi approved the name “travel card” for the promotion of “prepaid and postpaid" debit and credit cards.

In the press release issued by North International Bank weeks after its alliance with Atletico de Madrid, it was affirmed that “it has issued over one million physical payment instruments in the last decade, from prepaid cards, credit cards, payroll cards to gift cards and other options.”

North International Bank signed a sponsorship agreement with the Spanish first division soccer team, in a sign of expansion and internationalization of a bank that until 2016, had a rather diffuse trace.

In 2014, North International Bank was also seen as a sponsor and co-publisher of brochures of Venezuelan visual artists. “For Nibank, it is an honor to contribute to Latin American society as an international sponsor of several social causes, within our commitment to the development of the human being in ethical, social, sporting and cultural aspects,” reads one of those brochures. It was an ambitious presentation for a reality that at the time was still rather diffuse.

Today, however, the bank seems to be expanding. In addition to the funds related to the Clap's intermediaries, the mediation or correspondent activities of Venezuelan state banks, as well as the sponsorship agreement with Atletico de Madrid, the institution is looking for staff for its office in Caracas. In February of this year, the bank published in its social media vacancies for administrators, corporate lawyers and IT means of payment and web development specialists, among other positions. This is another sign that North International Bank is booming since Sudeban authorized its operation in Venezuela in 2016, despite of the extended economic downturn experienced in the country.

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