Monday, June 17, 2024

    Robert Amsterdam White Paper. Part 3: Latin America

    Hugo Chavez and Nicholas Maduro: Illustration by Reuters

    In Part 2 of the White Book, Religion in Ukraine spoke of Robert Amsterdam’s role in the Yukos case in Russia. Part 1 is available here.

    In Part 3, the author, Tetiana Derkach, offers a review of the political case that Amsterdam was involved in across Latin America. Among the most striking examples is the case of the Gutiérrez-Bosch family in Guatemala, as well as those of Eligio Cedeño and Reynaldo Muñoz in Venezuela.

    Disclaimer. The report shares the author’s own impressions and judgments based on the analysis of the two dozen cases on which Robert Amsterdam worked, as well as over a hundred open sources from around the world, including Ukraine, the US, Canada, the UK, France, Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Czechia, Thailand, Singapore, China, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon, and South Sudan. The author also sifted through hundreds of comments under dozens of social media posts, as well as numerous interviews and comments by Mr Amsterdam himself.

    Robert Amsterdam took his first professional steps in countries that he saw for himself as those where the rule of law just doesn’t work so plenty of fish can be caught in muddy waters. So Amsterdam developed his technique of “democratic counter-revolutions” in Latin America, where he dealt with both political and corporate cases. The most striking episodes include the case of the Gutiérrez-Bosch family in Guatemala and the cases of Eligio Cedeño and Reynaldo Muñoz in Venezuela.


    It would seem that the case of the Gutierrez-Bosch family is a typical family corporate showdown with elements of a soap opera. In 1999, the founder of the large restaurant chain Pollo Campero, Juan Arturo Gutierrez (a Guatemala national based in Canada), accused his nephews of fraud over the company’s shares, double accounting, tax evasion, and money laundering. The nephews gained ownership of the huge multinational agri-food concern Corporacion Multi-Inversiones by buying out its shares at a dumped price, as Gutierrez senior claimed. Arguing that the rule of law doesn’t exist in Guatemala and that the courts never hand down fair judgments, Arturo Gutierrez decided to take the litigation to the U.S. jurisdiction. And the man he needed was Robert Amsterdam, an expert on “criminal regimes”.

    He was given a simple task: to set up the case in the USA, where up the family corporation had been running up to two dozen stores by then. And Amsterdam bit into that case hard, especially given the client’s hefty wealth.

    It must be said that Guatemala really is a country with a far-from-stable political system, widespread corruption and organized crime, and poor judiciary. Repression against the opposition, political assassinations – all of that is about Guatemala, too. Also, the Gutierrez-Bosch clan was affected by the civil war. Therefore, the appeals to the violation of rule of law and human rights were by default a winning tactic.

    That is, there were sufficient grounds in the key claims that Amsterdam’s client put forward to Guatemalan courts. And then Amsterdam, as noted on one of his numerous online platforms, “designed and implemented an aggressive multinational campaign to bring pressure against the defendants and expose their illegal dealings” – exactly the technology that he later applied in Russia, and which he to this day believes is effective.

    Gutierrez invoked the Florida Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”) as his nephews allegedly funneled corporate funds through Miami.

    But then-U.S. District Judge C. Michael Moore forwarded the case back to Guatemala, explaining that other American courts where Gutierrez had filed lawsuits concluded that the Guatemalans should settle the case in domestic courts. That didn’t stop Amsterdam, who filed an appeal against Moore’s ruling with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, as well as lawsuits with Florida state courts.

    Although each side, as usual, told its own truth, Amsterdam chose a black-and-white picture as the best to go along with. It should also be noted that back in 2011, Arturo Gutierrez’s children had sued each other, too: the daughter accused her brother and her father’s company of the same crimes that Gutierrez senior had his nephews. She ultimately succeeded in having her brother arrested and obliged to pay $5 million in compensation.

    As for Robert Amsterdam, he managed to win in just one court – in Bermuda (the defendants traditionally denied that the court sided with their opponent). The media campaign launched by Amsterdam failed to yield much result. Some trials are still pending.


    In Venezuela, however, Amsterdam marked his presence with two high-profile cases. One involved banker Eligio Cedeño and the other – Reynaldo Muñoz, a member of the government led by Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro. In the previous case, Amsterdam’s client was portrayed as a political opponent of the Hugo Chávez regime, and in the latter – as a representative of the regime of Chávez’s successor, Maduro, who needs help in having U.S. sanctions targeting government assets revoked. It is unclear why Robert Amsterdam branded the Chavez regime as “criminal” but the Maduro regime as the one worth a handshake. Cedeño is on the list of political prisoners in Venezuela from the Chavez era, but during Maduro’s rule, that list got a whole lot longer.

    It must be noted right away that Robert Amsterdam has no sympathy toward Venezuela – and neither does he for Russia. That, however, never prevented him from playing with this country’s autocratic regimes on different sides of good and evil. And that is why these two cases reflect Amsterdam’s value ambivalence.

    Eligio Cedeño case

    Eligio Cedeño’s case is hard to separate from Venezuela’s thorny journey in search of its own political identity. Since mid-last century, Latin America, with the support from the USSR, fell into the trap of left-wing populist movements that positioned their leaders as fighters against capitalism, colonialism, and American hegemony. The religious side of the process is “liberation theology”, which, by the way, still enjoys influence over the Vatican policy. Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Juan Peron are all symbols of the era of anti-capitalist revolutions. But the problem of Latin American nations is that the pendulum of their political identity is swinging too quickly, and with a massive amplitude.

    At the time when the Marxist Hugo Chávez came to power, Eligio Cedeño had become a famous banker and part of Venezuela’s economic elite. But, unfortunately for him, in the late 1990s, the continent underwent a “left turn” with all its trappings of “social justice”, including wealth redistribution between the rich and the poor. It is clear that Cedeño and Chávez wouldn’t get along.

    In 2003, Cedeño was sued for allegedly illegally receiving $27 million for fictitious computer hardware imports. In 2007, the banker was arrested, and in 2008, Robert Amsterdam got onto the case. As usual, he never focused on economic accusations, immediately seizing on the media domain, portraying Cedeño as Chávez’s political opponent. As in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Canadian lawyers insisted that Cedeño’s unlawful arrest and custody remand indicated the political nature of the case. Cedeño was put on the list of political prisoners thanks to the conclusions of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The judge who released him from custody was immediately arrested. The banker fled to the United States thanks to the efforts of Amsterdam and his team.

    The fact that Amsterdam’s client successfully remained in the U.S. on a legal basis as a political prisoner convinced Amsterdam of the effectiveness of the chosen media-driven tactics, which included, for example, a meeting with Spanish lawmakers, whom he convinced to revoke the credentials of the Venezuelan ambassador (practically declaring him persona non grata) on the grounds that the envoy served as prosecutor general as Cedeño was being tried before becoming ambassador to obtain immunity from criminal prosecution. Also, Amsterdam says he met with high-ranking Brazilian officials, including with the former president, who had been a vivid Chavez critic. Interestingly, Amsterdam came to Brazil shortly before the Senate was to vote on Venezuela’s entry into the South American Common Market (MERCOSUR). One of the conditions for membership is the existence of democratic institutions in the applicant state. But, despite Amsterdam’s efforts, Brazil’s pragmatism prevailed so the Senate supported Venezuela’s bid. Actually, it seems that the same sort of pragmatism on the part of the Global South is now prevailing over declarative bows to democracy and human rights when it comes to the attitude towards Russian aggression against Ukraine.

    Although there can be no sympathy for the Chávez regime, quite ironically, the “Marxist” Amsterdam sided with the capitalist Cedeno to the last. Much later, as journalists were investigating the global data leak commonly known as the “Panama Papers”, they discovered that Cedel International Investment LTD, a commercial entity, owned by Cedeño, that ran the Venezuelan banks Canarias, Banpro, and Bolivar Banco, had used the services of Panama’s Mossack Fonseca* for their work in the offshore jurisdiction of the British Virgin Islands.

    *The Panama Papers leak exposed a database of 11.5 million documents related to the activities of Mossack Fonseca, which helped more than 14,000 clients create 214,488 shell companies in 21 tax havens around the world. Those papers testify to numerous tax evasion strategies, crimes in the field of taxation and money laundering, as well as violation of UN sanctions.

    Amsterdam’s conditional victory in that case further strengthened his confidence that his tactics were indeed working well. The case is important for understanding that it was then that the scheme of political pressure was successfully tested out. Its collateral result should be setting up a client’s escape from their home country (for example, to the U.S.) and legalizing their stay in the status of a political persecution victim.

    Reynaldo Muñoz case

    Who would have thought that in 2020, a fighter against the Chavez dictatorship would return to Venezuela to… defend the dictator Maduro’s regime from U.S. sanctions? So this marked the start of another soap opera.

    Maduro came to power as Chavez’s official successor. During the election campaign, he recounted how Chávez had dreamed of him as a cheerful bird and blessed him: “‘Suddenly a little bird came, so tiny, and circled me here three times,'” he said, pointing to his head and imitating wing flaps. The bird perched on a wooden beam, where it started to whistle, to which Maduro also whistled back. “I felt his spirit,” he added, referring to Chavez. “I felt it there, as if blessing us, saying, “Today the battle begins. Go toward victory, you have our blessing.” This is how I felt it in my soul.” The people liked it, and then Maduro performed this trick with the bird as an encore multiple times.

    The Chávez and Maduro regimes are basically twins. Literally from the very beginning of Maduro’s cadence, the country was rocked by mass protests, and then, in order to maintain power, Maduro launched a political oppression campaign. Because of this, sectoral and personal sanctions rained on Venezuela, primarily from the U.S. and Canada. So the Maduro regime, desperately looking for ways to fend off these restrictions, turned to various law and lobbying firms that had already dealt with authoritarian regimes before. The interests of Venezuela were to be represented by its Attorney General Reynaldo Muñoz Pedroza, who at the time (since April 2019) was subject to Canadian sanctions only. Muñoz’s task included finding ways to return hundreds of millions of dollars seized by the Trump administration, diverted by the Maduro regime from Venezuela through loyal businessmen to Miami.

    In early 2020, Muñoz hired the law firm Foley & Lardner, which planned to provide consulting services through the subcontractor Sonoran Policy Group (the head of which is former adviser to Donald Trump) in order to reduce and mitigate the risks associated with the implementation of U.S. sanctions. An important detail: the agreement was made with Muñoz in a capacity of a private, non-sanctioned, individual rather than a public official – on the grounds that the U.S. did not consider him a legitimate attorney general (as, in fact, was the case with the Maduro government itself, after it falsified the 2018 presidential elections).

    But hell broke loose over the deal as American politicians became aware of it almost immediately after it was sealed. GOP Representative Rick Scott threatened Foley & Lardner with all kinds of trouble and forced the firm to terminate the contract with Muñoz.

    But the hot-headed Venezuelan quickly found a replacement – Amsterdam & Partners, which signed an agreement with him as a representative of the Maduro government and received a deposit of $1.05 million in its account. In total, for its services, Amsterdam & Partners intended to receive more than $4 million in several tranches of $1 million each. The agreement states that the firm is to “provide advice with respect to sanctions imposed on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela by the US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and develop and implement a strategy to persuade OFAC to mitigate or remove sanctions, including discussions with relevant OFAC officials or other Treasury officials,” and is eligible to receive funds from the sanctioned government of Venezuela.

    It is clear that Amsterdam immediately came under fire from Rick Scott, who wrote to the lawyer himself, as well as to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin: “I ask that you investigate the nature of the contractual agreement between Amsterdam & Partners LLP and Reinaldo Muñoz Pedroza, including the services to be performed and the source of the monies to be paid, to determine if such representation violates the sanctions imposed against the Maduro regime and implicates the disclosure requirements of FARA.” But Amsterdam didn’t hold back in response, saying that the firm was not going to obey the political dictates of Florida. Amsterdam & Partners filed a complaint with the International Commission of Jurists, accusing Scott of violating the law by interfering with the Maduro government’s right to legal counsel. Amsterdam assured that it was providing legal services to the client, although the U.S. Attorney General’s report defined the nature of Amsterdam & Partners’ activities as political consulting in the U.S.

    It is noteworthy that the contract between Amsterdam & Partners and Muñoz states that the firm can also represent the interests of the antagonists of the Maduro regime if the matter does not apply to this case.

    Amsterdam behaved recklessly and scandalously – but what was the result? None for his client. In September 2020, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions against Muñoz for his cooperation with the Maduro regime, making it pointless to further protect his interests. But the case has already sealed for Amsterdam the image of a lawyer who is ready to defend not only some shady figures, but also dictatorships and authoritarian regimes.

    To be continued…

    Tetiana Derkach. Source: Religion in Ukraine