Reports from Cuba: The Odebrecht-GAESA money trail

Pablo Pascual Mendez Piña in Diario de Cuba:

The Odebrecht-GAESA money trail

Raúl Castro along with former Brazilian president Lula da Silva.
Raúl Castro along with former Brazilian president Lula da Silva.

All the President’s Men is the title of a 1976 film that told the story of how the Watergate scandal was exposed, the ultimate outcome being the resignation of then-US president Richard Nixon.  The misdeeds in question, revealed in the pages of The Washington Post by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the film, were divulged to the reporters by the famed informant known as “Deep Throat.”  In one scene from the film, the shadowy, unidentified figure told Woodward to: “Follow the money trail.”

Time and time and again, following the money trail is the best tactic and rule of thumb to track down the fronts, shell companies and tax havens employed by organized crime to carry out its mischief. But divulging to the public the possible irregularities by the company Odebrecht-GAESA in Cuba requires hacking the files of the military elite, a task beyond the capacity of independent journalism on the Island, as it lacks the resources, freedom and necessary support to undertake such an investigation.

After uncovering the corrupt monkey business known as Operación Lava Jato, still affecting a long list of Brazilian politicians and businessmen, following the money trail in Cuba is like crashing into the fences surrounding the Mariel Special Development Area (ZEDM) and the bayonets of the guards at the country’s military institutions, and running the risk of a long stay in a political police jail cell.

The truth is that after the Brazilian judiciary ordered the declassification of the contract for the megaport of Mariel, and froze the financing operations of the National Bank of Economic and Social Development (BNDES) for the transnational construction group Odebrecht, the Cuban regime has held its tongue, while other governments and media in the area – for example, Ecuador and Peru – have reacted by initiating a process of investigation into the activities of said company in their respective countries. As this article was being written, for example, the Peruvian Government had banned bids by Odebrecht.

The special circumstance in the case of Cuba is that Odebrecht is knee deep in GAESA, the military consortium that controls 80% of the Cuban economy and enjoys carte blanche to hide the destination and use of the money it controls, as current General/President Raúl Castro is its commander-in-chief.

The Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR), perhaps Cuba’s “most prestigious institution” thanks to its history of international missions and interventions in the major economic sectors, figures prominently on the list of suspects, as it has not clarified to the media its involvement in the corruption uncovered by the Lava Jato investigation.

From the epicenter of the money trail

Nine months after the inauguration of the Port of Mariel by Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Raúl Castro, in the framework of the second summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) held in Havana, the Brazilian portal Spotbnicks published an article by Felippe Hermes entitled “20 0bras que o BNDES financiou em outros países.”

Hermes expressed concern regarding the serious infrastructure problems that Brazil suffered, while the BNDES, with a treasury constituting 8.4% of the GDP of the South American giant, funded works in other countries in the area. He also cited 20 multi-million dollar projects, of which 50% were carried out by the Odebrecht construction company.

The relationship was dominated by the mega-port of Mariel, valued at 957 million dollars, to which BNDES contributed 682. As a curious fact, according to the article, the Ecuadorian government questioned the Odebrecht construction company and expelled it from the country due to defects found in the execution of the San Francisco hydroelectric plant, and threatened not to pay it for a 243 million dollar loan.

Moreover, the deputy for the Social Democratic Party (PSDB/SP), Vanderlei Macris, expressed his concern regarding the concession, starting in 2009 (under President Lula da Silva), of a series of loans to Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Uruguay and Mozambique.

Odebrecht then informed Macris, in the Cuban case, that the BNDES’s financing would go directly into the hands of the Government of the Island as export credit, to be necessarily spent on the purchase and financing of Brazilian products and services.  The Brazilian Government’s justification is that this negotiation with the Cuban regime was considered a “win-win,” since the investment only permitted the acquisition of Brazilian supplies.

On the list of BNDES disbursements in Cuba there stands out a series of works executed by Odebrecht, among them: sugar operation mechanization; rice harvesting; tourism projects; vehicle purchases and financing for the pharmaceutical industry, for a total amount of 252 million dollars. Later the Brazilian Minister of Development, Industry and Trade, Fernando Pimentel, announced the disbursal of $173 million by BNDES to finance the expansion and remodeling of five airports in Cuba.

In addition to the $682 million allocated for the construction of the megaport, $290 million in loans were announced by President Dilma Rousseff during the opening ceremony of the Mariel Container Terminal (TCM), designated for ZEDM infrastructure, thus raising the Brazilian investment in Mariel to the pretty sum of 972 million USD.

A work of research published in this newspaper compared the construction volumes and equipment at Mariel’s container terminal and the variables of the master plan for the mega port of Moín-Limón in Costa Rica. The findings reached exacerbated suspicions of a cost overrun of at least 400 million dollars on the construction of the TCM.

The kicker to this thriller is that the TCM can only perform simultaneous loading/unloading operations on two smaller ships, and its surface area barely surpasses that of the disabled Havana Container Terminal, built at a discreet cost of 40 million dollars. It has also been officially demonstrated that the bay is not deep enough to accommodate Neopanamax Category vessels. Thus, dredging would call for another multimillion-dollar investment, which would add more digits to its $957 million construction price tage. However, the Cuban Government has not even commented on it, and keeps the details and costs of the TCM Master Plan top secret.

If the journalist Felippe Hermes was concerned about the BNDES, a bank conceived as an institution to benefit families, transforming into a force aggravating inequality and taking from the poor to give to the rich, Cubans should worry that Mariel has been a terrible transaction, and that the 400 million overrun for a relatively useless port will end up swelling various accounts in tax havens. But to bring to light the probable irregularities by Odebrecht-GAESA by following the money trail we need a Woodward, a Bernstein, a “Deep Throat” and a clever hacker able to penetrate the MINFAR’s secret files.

It should be noted, even should such a scandal be uncovered, the prospects of a dictator like Raúl Castro stepping down are nil. In fact, it is more likely that he will be showered with praise at the General Assembly of the UN.