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"The Invisible Tuna Boat Owner"

The multimillionaire Venezuelan businessman, Ricardo Fernandez Barrueco, currently jailed in Caracas on bank fraud charges, had been sent to Cuba by President Hugo Chavez to help the country recover from its economic slump and also to spur economic growth on the island after Fidel Castro dies, according to former employees.

The Colombian-Venezuelan "entrepreneur", who was arrested in Caracas by the authorities accused of severals crimes allegedly arising from irregularities with four banks and who is the main shareholder of the Ecuadorian tuna cannery Pespesca Corp and several tuna purseiners, is now also mentioned in reltion to other illegal activities.

In an initial show of his new responsibility, looking for a personal benefit from future business in Cuba, Ricardo Fernandez Barruecos gave the Cuban government a gift of 28 BMW automobiles, his former security consultant Luis Castro said in a sworn statement. Castro told El Nuevo Herald that Fernandez, envisioning brilliant prospects for his business in Cuba, also earned the support of Raul Castro to open up the island's economy after the death of his brother Fidel.

Another former employee of Fernandez' organization told El Nuevo Herald that Fernandez made several visits to Cuba by private jet and met with then-Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. But the close relationship between Fernandez and Chavez soon ended.

Venezuelan regulatory agencies in November seized Fernandez' banks, companies and properties, accusing him of massive fraud related to his recent acquisition of four banks. The scuttled Cuba mission is just one of many aspects of Fernandez' life that have recently emerged in the wake of the fraud charges.

BUSINESS EMPIRE

Fernandez, 44, was one of the richest and perhaps least-known men in Latin America. Archives at newspapers and television stations in Venezuela don't contain a single photo of him. His agro-industrial conglomerate Proarepa was the leading supplier to Venezuela's government food programs. Yet he was obsessed with privacy. The only public sign of his presence were his initials on the bow of his fishing boats in the Pacific.

Chavez rewarded Fernandez because he used his company's trucks to transport food during the opposition-led strike of 2002 in Venezuela, according to his attorney and an internal audit of Proarepa. The international accounting firm KPMG calculated his fortune in 2005 at $1.6 billion.

Fernandez, who has an economics degree from Venezuela's Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, owned one of the largest fishing fleets in Latin America, with 12 vessels as well as fuel tanker ships. He had also partnered with Gruma, a subsidiary of the Mexican food conglomerate Grupo Industrial Maseca. According to a 2008 report commissioned for Proarepa and prepared by international consulting firm FTI Consulting, Fernandez employed some 5,000 people that year and his conglomerate had about $400 million in assets.

Chavez maintained constant and direct communication with Fernandez, a senior Venezuelan business executive told El Nuevo Herald on condition of anonymity because he fears government reprisals. In 2006, Chavez cited Fernandez as a model "socialist businessman.'' But for some leaders of the opposition in Venezuela, Chavez' admiration went beyond his gratitude for Fernandez' support of his socialist program. They claim that Adan Chavez, the president's brother, received a cut of the businessman's success.

"[Fernandez] is a frontman for Adan Chavez,'' said dissident Ismael Garcia, of the pro-democracy group PODEMOS, on Nov. 24 during a session of the Venezuela National Assembly. "Over seven years, Fernandez went from being the landlord of a gymnasium and the parking garage for the Hilton hotel in Caracas'' to the owner of a flotilla of tuna fishing and cargo ships, as well as of the largest livestock ranch in Venezuela, among other assets, added Garcia.

Adan Chavez has repeatedly denied allegations of close business dealings with Fernandez.

The FTI Consulting audit maintains that there are no links between Adan Chavez and Proarepa and that Fernandez has been a successful businessman since he was 25. "Fernandez is a prestigious and successful Spanish-Venezuelan businessman in the agroindustrial, tuna and shipping sector,'' concluded FTI in its report, which was commissioned by Fernandez through the Miami law firm of Tew Cardenas.

FALLINGS-OUT

Luis Castro, who had been hired by Fernandez' Panamanian flagship Fextun, left the firm in April over strong disagreements between the owners' brothers and some members of the board of directors. According to Castro, the directors suspected that he offered to sell information about Fernandez' conglomerate to a CIA official in Panama. "It's all untrue,'' Castro said. "I would have to be an idiot to put at risk a job that paid $10,000 a month, another $10,000 for my wife, plus an armored car and free housing.''

Following an attack on his wife in Panama in October 2008, Castro filed a complaint with the Panamanian public prosecutor's office and asked that Fernandez, as well as his brothers and some board members, be investigated. His wife was shot eight times and lost her left eye. In his statement to the Panamanian prosecutor's office, Castro revealed details of the inner workings of the conglomerate, including Fernandez' connections in Cuba.

Fernandez' swift rise was always overshadowed by his fear that US federal officials were following his tracks. A confidential report prepared by a US investigative firm -- which shared it with El Nuevo Herald on condition that the company not be named -- stated that Fernandez had been questioned upo
n his arrival at US airports in 2003. An indication that the federal government was investigating him came in December 2004, when his associate Sarkis Arslanian was deported to Venezuela from Atlanta shortly after landing on a flight from Caracas. Arslanian's visa had been canceled.

Fernandez also experienced an embarrassing incident. In May 2007, US Drug Enforcement Agency agents seized his corporate jet at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. Fernandez was not on board. In a seizure affidavit filed in federal court in Miami, the DEA alleged that the plane had been illegally registered with an "N'' license, which signifies US ownership, although none of the company owners (American Food Grain) were Americans, as required by law.

Such a tactic is frequently used by money-launderers and drug-traffickers so their aircraft are subject to fewer inspections at international airports, the affidavit stated.

After a year of negotiations between the prosecutor's office and Tew Cardenas, the Miami law firm representing Fernandez, an agreement was reached that included a $1 million fine and a pledge to sell the plane.

The agreement contains no references linking the plane to drug-trafficking. It only describes the administrative violation related to the use of the US license.

CUBAN CONNECTION

Castro, Fernandez' former security consultant, said that he learned of the connections with Cuba in 2007 from a Fextun employee. The worker asked Fernandez about the details of the automobile shipment to Cuba and, visibly uncomfortable, Fernandez explained that they were presents for Cuban officials designed to curry favor with the island government, according to Castro.

"When Fidel dies and Raul has total power, Fernandez was hoping to take advantage by buying some bankrupt companies in Cuba into which he would inject money to relaunch them,'' Castro said.

Alberto Gonzalez, spokesman for the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington, declined to comment.

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