December 1, 2006

Venezuelan High Life: Bulletproof BMW And a Vote for Chávez

Oil Tycoon Ruperti Supports
Socialist's Re-Election;
Gift of Bolívar's Pistols
December 1, 2006; Page A1

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Most of Hugo Chávez's supporters live in shantytowns and count on subsidies from the government. Most of his opponents live in middle-class apartment buildings and mansions in leafy neighborhoods and are horrified by the likelihood of a Chávez victory in Sunday's presidential election.
Then there are people like shipping tycoon Wilmer Ruperti, who tools around town in a chauffeur-driven bulletproof BMW and who owes much of his fortune to the Chávez government. Along with other, well-connected businessmen, known as Boliburgueses -- Bolivarian bourgeoisie -- Mr. Ruperti is rooting for Chávez's re-election.
At his office a few days ago, the 46-year-old Mr. Ruperti, a gregarious, bearlike man with thinning, red-tinted hair and a thick gold chain, pored over a poll he says he commissioned for about $60,000 that showed Mr. Chávez winning comfortably. "I agree with the president," said Mr. Ruperti. "He is the only person who has identified himself with the poor."
As an oil trader, Mr. Ruperti hit the big time in 2003 when he came to the rescue of Mr. Chávez's government, which was then fighting to survive a strike that had shut down the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA. With the country running out of gasoline, Mr. Ruperti used his fleet of tankers to unload fuel oil in Venezuelan ports, showing frightened insurers that they were secure. That opened the way for other tankers to bring in gasoline, which Mr. Ruperti bought and then resold to PDVSA, breaking the back of the strike. A grateful Mr. Chávez decorated Mr. Ruperti with the army's Star of Carabobo medal.
Now Mr. Ruperti embodies the contradictions of Chávez-era Venezuela -- a country that is dedicated to socialist redistribution of wealth, but which is also enjoying an oil-backed capitalist boom that is further dividing rich and poor. Eighteen-year-old whiskeys are the rage, and Hummers and top-of-the-line SUVs clog the streets of Caracas, while four out of 10 Venezuelans survive on $2 a day or less.
These days, Mr. Ruperti, whose father, an Italian immigrant who worked as a chef in restaurants here, cuts a wide swath in Caracas society. Last year, he sponsored the event of the season -- a charity concert by tenor Luciano Pavarotti, which succeeded in bringing together the Boliburgueses and the anti-Chávez grand dames of Caracas society. A year earlier, he paid $1.7 million at a New York auction for a pair of ornate French pistols made by Napoleon's gunsmith in 1804 for Simón Bolívar, Venezuela's independence hero. Caracas gossip had it that Mr. Ruperti planned to present the pistols to Mr. Chávez, who is so enamored of Bolívar that he changed Venezuela's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to honor his hero.
"Those pistols had to be in the hands of Venezuelans," says Mr. Ruperti, who says he plans to leave them to his children. "We have to rescue the Venezuelan-ness of our people."
His critics hold up Mr. Ruperti's business practices as an example of what has gone wrong in the country. This year, Transparency International, the anticorruption watchdog, lists Venezuela as No. 141 out of 163 countries it surveys in its ranking of "perceived levels of corruption."
Last year, a congressional commission dominated by members of Mr. Chávez's party looked into allegations that Mr. Ruperti made millions from double-billing the state oil company for gasoline shipments during the strike at PDVSA when the company's accounting system broke down. The commission also investigated whether Mr. Ruperti received sweetheart contracts to ship asphalt with PDVSA's Citgo subsidiary in the U.S. The commission cleared the oil trader. "Ruperti performed vital services for PDVSA, and he was paid for them," says Jesús Alberto García, the panel's president.
But the saga continues. Earlier this year, Mr. Chávez's office sent a letter to Congress asking lawmakers to take another look at the controversy. Among the issues the president's office wants investigated: whether PDVSA lost $30 million due to double billing and bogus invoices by Mr. Ruperti, and whether he used "company names without their knowledge for the fraudulent acquisition of fuel." Mr. Ruperti denies any wrongdoing.
So far, the controversy hasn't had much effect on his business. He now runs a 19-ship tanker fleet and says he plans to start a maritime bank. Mr. Ruperti is also investing $26 million in a cable-television station he wants to turn into a 24-hour news operation. "I'm going to call it Channel I, I for intelligence, impartiality and information," he says, as the small TV screen in his BMW, tuned to the government station, silently shows President Chávez exuberantly speaking to followers.
But earlier this year, Venezuela's revolutionary contradictions took a bad bounce for Mr. Ruperti, an avid golfer, when Caracas's Chavista mayor started legal procedures to seize the Caracas Country Club's golf course and replace it with public housing. The matter is still in court. "My heart tells me I don't agree with that," says Mr. Ruperti, who has founded a golf school for children from the city's barrios.
For many Venezuelans, Caracas's Dolce Vita of premium wines, premium whiskeys and premium cars brings to mind Venezuela's first big oil boom during the 1970s, a time remembered as the years of "Saudi Venezuela."
Then, President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who nationalized foreign oil companies to create PDVSA in 1976, favored a clique of friends, known as the "12 Apostles," who made enormous fortunes through government contracts. Now, says Ben Amí Fihman, the editor of a magazine called "Exceso," or Excess, "the 12 Apostles have become the 40 thieves."
Today Caracas is as divided as it was during the days of the oil strike. Mr. Ruperti's name heads the list of "collaborators of the regime" posted on the Internet by "Democratic Soldiers," an organization of anti-Chávez officers purged from the armed forces. "Keep the names ... and remember them for when it becomes necessary," the list says, adding information about Mr. Ruperti's residence, friends, business dealings, and where his private jet is parked.
"A lot of people think I'm a devil, but it's not true," says Mr. Ruperti. "I sleep easily at night and morally I'm satisfied." Nevertheless, Mr. Ruperti takes no chances. He rides in Caracas's traffic-choked streets in his armor-plated car, accompanied by two South Korean bodyguards, Yong Lee and Rim Paek. Mr. Ruperti says the Koreans are tae kwon do masters who can brain an assailant with a butter knife at a distance of 20 meters.
"If one of my enemies comes in here tonight, I'll have them show you," he joked before sitting down to dinner at the best Italian restaurant in Caracas. After dinner, he left the restaurant through a back door. "For safety's sake," he said.

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