Archive for the 'Political Commentary' Category

Freeports and secret accounts in the art world


Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi painted for Louis XII of France between 1506-13, terribly restored and sold to Dmitry Rybolovlev by Yves Bouvier.

A Nazi-looted Modigliani was seized from the Geneva Freeport in the collection of Edmond Safra’s cousin David Nahmad. That heaven of anonymity was also the site of the “Bouvier affair,” an art world scandal involving an art handler turned dealer, a Russian oligarch, secret bank accounts, and even a Leonardo.

Yves Bouvier, “the king of the freeports,”  was arrested in Monaco in 2015 charged with fraud and money laundering. According to The Wall Street Journal, HSBC is being investigated for issuing false documentation to help the case against Bouvier. Allegations of stolen Picassos from the painter’s daughter have been questioned when payment for the pieces appeared in Lichtenstein trust.  U.S. prosecutors have opened an investigation.

Bouvier’s Pôle R4, Île Seguin (Seguin Island) is scheduled to open next year.

The New Yorker: “The Bouvier Affair” (article from February) click

Full disclosure? Department of Justice inquiry – No regulation on the art market – Bloomberg (click)

‘Panama Papers:” Doomed to Oblivion? A History


A Rake's Progress

Public memory is short, so is media editorial attention. With the release of the “Panama Papers,” Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned.  In a world of impunity for the powerful, he will possibly remain the sole sacrificial lamb.  Britain’s conservative Prime Minister David Cameron finally admitted to a beneficial interest in his father’s offshore investment trust. Figures implicated in the Mossack Fonseca leak include a Spanish Infanta (another princess is being tried for corruption and hiding assets). The list of the notorious includes Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Proshenko, the Qatari, Moroccan and the Saudi royal families, the Chinese Communist Party leadership and Venezuelan Chavista apparatchiks.

The revelations should come as no surprise. Italian journalist Roberto Saviano has recently published ZeroZeroZero detailing the operations and political tentacles of drug cartels and the Russian mafia. Money laundering through offshore accounts is their vehicle to power, political connections and luxury.

Hervé Falciani with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists made public extensive information about HSBC Geneva . The bank held over 181 billion € for close to 100, 000 individual depositors and 20, 000 offshore companies. Clients included Wellington Florida resident and former Chavista Alejandro Andrade, billionaire Alfred Taubman, Argentine socialite collector Amalita de Fortabat*, actor Christian Slater, designer Diane von Fürstenberg, among others. Socialist Venezuela ranked third among countries with the largest dollar amounts, the United States fourth with $13.4 billion (USD).

In a story that has gone cold, senior management of Banca Privada d’Andorra was arrested, the bank taken over after the US Treasury revealed that it was a “primary money laundering concern” for the Russian mafia, Chinese shady operators and Venezuelan corrupt officials. Matters became complicated when it was revealed that BPA had acquired Banco Madrid, a private bank in the Spanish capital. The country’s central bank took control of the entity. The United States had expressed concern over suspect operations and correspondent relationships with HSBC, Citigroup, Bank of America and Deutsche Bank. The results of the investigations were never released to the press. The identities of those involved remain a secret.

In 2012, Assistant Attorney General (a Clinton family friend, “FOB”) Lanny Breuer offered HSBC a sweet settlement deal after the British bank admitted to violating financial regulations, criminal law and federal statutes when laundering billions of dollars for Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. According to a Rolling Stone story, none of the bank officials were criminally prosecuted, their punishment: “deferred compensation bonus.” HSBC was recently sued by American victims of violent crime from drug cartel activity.

A “60 Minutes” segment aired on January 31, 2016 showed American lawyers’ inclination (including top-notch New York legal firms) to set up staggered corporate structures shell companies with offshore origins. They would be designed to invest funds in Manhattan real estate, yachts, airplanes and items of conspicuous consumption.

McClatchy Miami Herald investigators reveal that Mossack Fonseca retained the services of a Miami representative. Not without irony, Olga Santini worked out of a “Miami Vice”-featured Brickell apartment. The city’s luxury real estate market is awash with stories of corrupt Brazilians, Italian gangsters, Venezuelans and other colorful Latin Americans buying multi-million-dollar properties.  Interestingly, the paper has not revealed any Russian name from the resident Sunny Isles and Aventura plutocracy. Area politicians have objected to a FinCEN geographic investigation of high-value real estate transactions. Waterfront apartments on Brickell, downtown Miami, Miami Beach, Surfside, Aventura, Bal Harbour and Sunny Isles are all in the seven figure range.

With Espirito Santo Bank, Miami was the setting for another international banking and money laundering scandal. The parent company in Lisbon was taken over by the government, investigated, its CEO detained on suspicion of fraud, mismanagement and irregularities. The conglomerate was audited for evidence of money laundering. The empire included a diamond mine in Angola, Miami luxury condos and a Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) office and hotel (Conrad) skyscraper on Brickell Avenue. The tower was quietly sold for $142 million. The sale took place after Santo Espirito Bank had been sued for fraud and aiding and abetting money laundering. In February 2014, SSB agreed to a consent order with the FDIC regarding bank secrecy and anti-money laundering requirements. According to The Wall Street Journal, as recently as December 2014, New York prosecutors and a federal grand jury sought to ascertain if the Miami subsidiary had been used by a Venezuelan businessman to launder money and transfer large sums to the Cayman Islands and Switzerland. In July, 2015, Ricardo Espirito Santo Salgado, head of the empire, was placed under house arrest in Lisbon. In a surprise move announced in May of last year, a Venezuelan group headed by Salomón Benacerraf (owner of newspaper Diario Las Américas)  and the Cohen family of the Sambil Group (shopping centers in Curaçao, Dominican Republic and Spain) purchased Espirito Santo Bank Miami for $10 million. It is has been rebranded as Brickell Bank.

Miami banking authorities and regulators are now looking at increased activity in bearer bonds from non-citizens and account-holders from non-resident corporate entities. It is often that offshores seek the anonymity of Delaware corporations to allow them entry into the United States.

Only The Guardian has reported on a common practice by offshore companies for portfolio diversification: art purchases. The British paper tells the story of currency trader, John Lewis, a former George Soros partner, who purchased the Ganz collection and using Christie’s changed the course of art world economics, the history of the auction house and the investment in visual arts as a high-value high-return asset for offshore agents. The ease with which art sales can take place, relatively unsupervised, to international companies – especially at the gallery level or within the context of international art fairs – makes this an ideal venture instrument, easy to transport, easy to hide and with a fast turnaround possibility as long as the provenance is legitimate and the piece is certified by a recognized expert. The very galleries or auction houses that sell the pieces to an offshore corporation have no problems encouraging museums to showcase the works in special exhibits (further enhancing the value of the asset) if in the collection of a corporate owner. This affords anonymity and legitimacy.

The “Panama papers” are evidence of a sense of entitlement and assured impunity. Socioeconomic status confers privileges on a ruling oligarchy. Politicians, sports figures, hedge fund billionaires, royalty, entertainers, powerful investors and bankers are actors in a global economy and a transnational financial system. It assures them profit and permanence. Laws and financial regulations are flexible and accommodating to hegemony. The major players in the system, multinational corporations and international financial institutions have evolved into a “transnational historic bloc” that exercises global power by controlling even the information released to the public through the media they control and the way justice is administered. Economic and financial structures respond to political patronage. With financial and power concentration in fewer hands, instances like the “Panama Papers” will provide short-term  entertainment but no real pressure for transparency and accountability.

The world financial system’s fragility was tested by fraudulently rated mixed mortgage-backed instruments. No systematic investigation and prosecution of culprits ensued from our Justice Department. Is one to expect any difference this time?


  • Pictures of the author with the late Amalita de Fortabat, Dolores Smithies and Mrs. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar were published in the New York media. No more than a social acquaintance brought the author together with Mrs. Lacroze de Fortabat, introduced by his friend Cuban-American socialite, collector and Sotheby’s employee Dolores Smithies.

Justice Has Been Done


President Obama announces the news of Bin Laden's death

“To win that war, we need a commander-in-chief, not a law professor standing at a lectern.” Sarah Palin, 2008

The bully who promised to “smoke him out of his cave” and his pack of thugs (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) failed to deliver. A Constitutional law professor accomplished the mission. Three years into his presidency, Barack Obama’s CIA and Department of Defense did away with the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks on America.

Looking at this event, one cannot but notice the restraint of the US President, his terse prose, his gratitude to the servicemen and women who executed the operation. The flow of his sentences had the elegance of sound reasoning. His ideas were clear: “We did not choose this war; war came to our shore.” He added: “Our war is not with Islam.” There was an underlying theme in Obama’s speech: a nation committed to ideals will pursue them no matter the time or effort. He spoke with a sense of conviction and beckoned the nation to unity in time of crisis. A soft-spoken man offered closure where bravado failed. A sad chapter of our history started with hatred by others but was ended by the United States with the universal language of justice.

The rhetoric of Al Qaeda is overblown. Hateful tirades contradict the very essence of the Quran. Theirs is the appeal to nationalism, ethnocentrism and a limited sectarian view of Islam. The President’s speech was not about revenge but about the XVIII century Enlightenment principles that guided the Founding Fathers. Far from an exercise in might, the mission was not a First World nation using its military and financial prowess to do away with the enemy. Bin Laden was, after all, part of the privileged Arab ruling elite. The President articulated what happened today as the discharge of a moral obligation to innocent victims and the nation.

For tonight, the world looks beyond religion. What transpired tonight is a duty of justice: it is the fulfillment of a law, not a matter of personal ethics. Tonight we rejoice not in vengeance but in justice accomplished.

I Hear America Singing



Tuesday’s victory for Barack Obama proved that poetry and justice are still vibrant possibilities. I hear America singing. Whitman, Thoreau, Martin Luther King still ring with authenticity. Could days of lies, unfairness, and blindness to inequity be part of our painful growth as a nation? Can a new leadership bring new optimism in the political process and the country’s economy? Can a healing force and a new transparency extend from the White House to the halls of Congress to Wall Street?

“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing, Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, The day what belongs to the day.”  Walt Whitman

 America, we rescued the dream; it marches on to the land of promise. Let unyielding hope be our hymn.

A Geography Lesson for Dick Cheney



After a speech in Dallas, a journalist inquired into Dick Cheney’s views on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. His response: “the people of Perú deserve better… leadership.” The country begs to differ. The United States deserves better leadership. To help the Executive shape and articulate a foreign policy, our country requires a Vice President with knowledge of geography.

“We have refrained from making public pronouncements about Mr. Chávez — I think, for good and legitimate reasons. He’s a — obviously, an individual with his own agenda. And he spends a great deal of his time worrying about us and criticizing the United States…And the people of Perú (sic), I think, deserve better in their leadership.” Embarrassing! The “slip” or mistake is symptomatic of a mindset: our southern border is Finisterre, beyond it, the chaotic void of Latinalia.

A country experienced in embarrassment from the current administration, public displays of ignorance from its leadership are still not welcome. As the White House team comes to mind, Karl Rove, a senior advisor, does not have a college degree. Consistency, like world geography, is not one of Dick Cheney’s strengths. On a CSPAN interview of April 15, 1994 he stated that invading Iraq would create a quagmire… , the same quagmire faced by our troops today. The Vice President seems to forget that no weapons of mass destruction, no connections with Al-Qaeda prior to our military intervention, and no civil war existed prior to our invasion. Three thousand of our boys and girls dead and a price tag of $300 Billion in taxpayer money has been the result of his inconsistency. The administration was charged with the duty to apprehend Osama Bin Laden. Where is he? Last we heard he was coiffing his beard while in the business of making videos. The Bush/Cheney White House has failed miserably in the task and has diverted the nation’s attention chasing giants and windmills in Iraq. Allowing General Colin Powell to embarrass himself in front of the United Nations and the world, pardoning a convicted felon (former chief of staff Libbey), the Bush-Cheney episode, soon to conclude, has been one of the darkest clouds in American executive branch history.

Fourth-world tyranny and “caudillismo” are characterized by secret tortures, prisoners of war, and lack of due process. The US now maintains prisons and torture chambers in Cuban territory (Guantánamo) rivaling those of Caribbean fossil Fidel Castro. Constitutionally protected civil rights are now a whim championed by “liberals.”

Since Dick Cheney’s days as Vice President are numbered, one can safely ask without fear of a holiday stay in tropical Guantánamo: isn’t his interview on CSPAN in 1994 and his present stance not evidence of the biggest “flip-flop” in Vice Presidential history. We can afford to offer the Vice President a geography lesson. Venezuela (Hugo Chávez’s fiefdom) lies north of Perú.

Rethinking a Party



Le Figaro stated that this year’s presidential elections would lead the Democrats to “an examination of conscience.” The French daily quoted party insiders who see the future of the Party in the hands of new figures like Barack Obama. “We came up short in the White House and in the Senate,” complained Hillary Clinton to CNN’s Larry King. “I think that means we’ve got to take a hard look at what we stand for as a party and how we present to the American people both the values and the priorities that Democrats are willing to fight for.” This hard look will have to take into account the right swing of the American nation.

Most pundits attribute George W. Bush’s victory to the influence of Christian hardliners opposed to abortion and gay rights. The religious vote is but a factor in the complicated dynamics of a “Right Nation.” Bill Clinton’s populist charm was keenly mindful of the right sway of post-Reagan America. The populist factor was, in 2004, one of the key ingredients in the Republican formula for success. For the American electorate, a distant East Coast Catholic patrician married to a Portuguese billionaire was no match for a warm and inarticulate Texas bully.

Worse than the accusations of “flip flopping” on Iraq policy, the “liberal” stigma haunted Mr. Kerry’s bid for the White House. Liberals are perceived as soft on foreign policy, economic disasters, and morally ambiguous.

The American Left has had to reposition itself after the victory of the democratic free-market paradigm. Bill Clinton was able to sell his ideas on the basis of pure charm, articulating a right-of-center Democratic platform. Mr. Clinton presided during a period of unprecedented prosperity and foreign policy success.

The contested 2000 election – where the populist element was noticeably absent chez Gore – was followed by the September 11th tragedy. The Bush administration used this historical juncture to advance the “neocon” agenda of Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, and ideologue Wolfowitz. Draped in the American flag, the militarization of society and foreign policy as well as the Iraq excursion became necessary compensation devices in light of the barbarian aggression. Little has been written of the Iraq adventure as a national compensation mechanism to a national trauma and the unsuccessful search for Bin Laden.

Silencing the critical voice of Howard Dean in favor of a “high road,” gave Republicans the time necessary to mount a serious campaign that dictated the terms of the debate. It afforded the Bush camp the possibility of ignoring the budget deficit, the absence of weapons of mass destruction and an exit strategy in Iraq, the medical insurance crisis, unemployment, and, above all, the findings of the 9/11 Report and the judicious, disparaging “tell-alls” of insiders Paul O’Neill and Richard Clarke.

Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004) singles out the sources of George W’s brand of conservatism: Texas, business, and religion.

The right swing in government policy is seen as the product of the many Conservative think tank alumni now in positions of power, the offspring of Protestant ministers currently in the Cabinet, the cultural cohesiveness of the Right leadership, and the sense of purpose afforded the administration by the September 11 th tragedy. “Conservatism’s progress goes much deeper than the gains that the Republican Party has made over the past half century or the steady decline in Democratic registration. The Right clearly has ideological momentum on its side in much the same way that the Left had momentum in the 1960s.” Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue that “the extent to which the center of gravity in American politics has moved to the right has been clearly illustrated by the current president and his predecessor. First came the first two-term Democratic president since the Second World War, who only achieved that feat by governing like an Eisenhower Republican. Now the grandson of Prescott Bush has cut taxes, catered to the Religious Right and generally governed like a Sun Belt business tycoon.” The authors point to the most important characteristic of the 2004 election: “If our survey has been one of conservative success, it has also been one of liberal failure. American liberalism, as both a body of ideas and a political coalition, is a shadow of its former self.” The Democratic Party will survive as a political alternative as soon as it confronts the right swing of American culture and the electoral need for populism.

America’s Wonderful Tolerance: The 2004 Elections



The [American] public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius “Oscar Wilde

We are a tolerant nation. Last November we forgot a mounting deficit, an absurd war (no WMD’s or connection to Al Qaeda), rising military expenses, and a weak economy. We forgot the embarrassment of Abu Ghraib. We don’t need to know if sadism came with a strategy, approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for the interrogation of prisoners. Prior to November’s elections, 1,100 American soldiers had been killed and 8,500 wounded in Iraq. We don’t need to know if there American citizens — with Constitutional rights — in Guantanamo. We don’t need to ascertain the efficacy of the Patriot Act. We forgot the abrogation of our rights to privacy. Our absolution returned George W. Bush to the White House.

Our country has no tolerance for a critical stance, deep thought, statistics, policy alternatives or legislative priorities. Genius is elitist and alienating. Inquiry, critical questioning, and expert testimonies are in the realm of genius. Give us a story, a patriotic and righteous story. We are the sons and daughters of William Bradford, Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather and his witch trials. We cling to our defining myths: the Mayflower, the frontier, scientific and technical prowess, unprecedented prosperity, world leadership, and pluralism.

We love a good story-teller: one that appeals to our virtue and the notion of prosperity through hard work. We do require virility and vitality in our political pastors. We are an egalitarian country. There is something elitist and contradictory in brains and public service. Oxford-Yale educated William Clinton added populist charisma to his political persona. Charm is a prerequisite in any successful bid for the White House.

We are an optimistic nation with no tolerance for gloomy forecasts and complexity in our national design. Are they not, after all, the stuff of genius? Divine Providence and our commitment to moral goodness will get us through “the perilous fight.” We are the moral beacon of the world, the city on a hill,

Bible in hand, work ethic on the other, robed in principle, we forgive and forget. We forgive that in our war against terrorism, Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are still at large. We forget Afghanistan’s opium trade that “from a military perspective,” according to a British official, “we need to . . . realise that counter-narcotics is central. If we don’t do something, it will turn into another Colombia.” We forget our 1570 boys and girls sacrificed in a conflict with no clear exit strategy. We forget the deaths of innocent Iraqi women and children. We ignore our alienation from Europe and the oil-producing Arab world. We forgive our mounting national debt of $7 trillion. We forget our trade deficit of $61 billion. The most spendthrift administration in history now proposes a budget deficit of $427 billion. We forgive the administration’s unsuccessful $14 billion cut to the Medicaid budget. We forget the 12% interest rate ($15 billion a year) in interest payments. We forgive the unchecked escalation of oligopolies. The 9/11 Report, the warnings of Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker are in the domain of genius. Give us entertaining news: mass killers, Popes, celebrity trials.

We are a moral nation. We forgive the unethical behavior of Republican members of Congress. We just hold public servants responsible for their sexual behavior, not their policies.

As long as we have a Pollyanna in the White House, we can forget our atrocious environmental record, our increased dependence on foreign oil, and our lack of refining capacity.

We are a nation committed to life and justice. For Terry Schiavo and the cameras, we convened a special session of Congress (a Republican Congress) to supersede the judicial system. We pack our benches with Republican-friendly jurists. The judiciary remains independent as long as it does not run into conflict with our Judeo-Christian values. We forget our hallowed separation of powers. We forget the separation of Church and State when we use fundamentalist churches to pursue a political agenda.

How can we be so forgiving? We are a simple people. We just require stories, simple stories, stories we can recall. We require sermons, revivalist rallies to confirm our values and identity. We are wonderfully tolerant; we forgive everything except genius.