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Controversial Venezuelan tax collector enjoys luxury life in Miami

Numerous ex-officials of the Venezuela's socialist government have set up businesses and residences in the United States, despite repeatedly blaming Washington for the country's current political and economic crisis. Ten years ago Jose Cedillo played a major role in targeting opposition TV stations.
27 May 2017 – 10:30 AM EDT
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José Joaquín Cedillo Moreno, a former director at Venezuela's tax agency SENIAT Crédito: Redes sociales

José Cedillo was considered a strict enforcer in Venezuela's national tax authority, SENIAT, during the government of former President Hugo Chávez.

A decade ago he played a prominent role in penalizing opposition TV stations and several U.S. companies, sparking accusations of political persecution in his role as SENIAT's director of the office of Special Taxpayers.

Cedillo almost never appeared on Venezuelan television but his name appeared in numerous official announcements as the champion of the 'Zero Evasion" campaign of fines against companies accused of tax cheating during the early years of the Chávez-led socialist revolution.

Today Cedillo lives in the heart of the capitalist empire condemned by his former bosses. He owns a $1.3 million home in a gated community in the city of Doral, near Miami, a district heavily populated by Venezuelan exiles.

He travels the globe with his wife who also worked at the SENIAT. In February the couple sold a bayfront apartment on Miami's high-end Brickell Avenue. They also own an office building in Doral, where the car park boasts an array of Mercedes Benz.

Cedilllo is one of many former officials of Venezuela's socialist government who have established themselves in the United States, betting on anonymity and fading memories, as well as the generosity of U.S. immigration laws.

Oil Strike

During a 2003 strike by workers at the state run oil and gas company, PDVSA, the TV channels ran free ads promote the anti-government work stoppage.

Two years later the government punished them by imposing a total of $2 million fines on four major TV companies - Radio Caracas Television, Televen, Venevision, and Globovisión for allegedly failing to pay taxes on the commercials. The fines were seen by the TV channels as part of an effort to intimidate them.

Venevision and Televen later softened their political coverage of the government while RCTV was closed in 2007 after its license was not renewed by the government. Globovision also toned down its political coverage and was later sold to a pro-government businessman.

The government defended its actions as part of sweeping tax reforms to combat tax evasion and to fund social programs for the poor.

Alleging tax violations, Cedillo also ordered the temporary closure of U.S. oil companies Chevron and Shell, as well as the American consumer products firm Colgate-Palmolive and Electricity of Caracas, a U.S. subsidiary.

"I was not a public official"

Cedillo is unrepentant. He told Univision that he an administrative civil servant who began his career under President Rafael Caldera (1994-1999), and does not consider himself tied to any political party.

"You are confused. I was not a public official but a career employee. I entered government service during the Caldera government. I didn't work for the Chávez government but for the Venezuelan state," he said.

In a message sent to Univision, Cedillo's wife, Jessica Herrera, said that her husband "did not belong to any political current," including the ruling United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV) when he was a state employee."

His wife wrote that Cedillo "does not belong to the regime nor sells or receives dollars from the Venezuelan government." She added that "not only does he fight for me and our three children so we lack nothing, but little by little he has tried to help those of our family members who still suffer there so that they can come and escape that disaster."

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Until 2007 Cedillo was the right hand of José Gregorio Vielma Mora, director of the SENIAT, the federal tax authority. His colleagues remember him as a low-key employee with a broad technical background who earned the director's confidence.

"Everything Vielma Mora asked for, he granted it, he was his star manager," said a former colleague.

Politically motivated?

The problem is that what Vielma Mora asked for was often politically motivated, critics say.

"Vielma Mora and Cedillo enforced with discretion and deception everything that was ordered from the presidency, they didn't want to be on Chávez's wrong side," the source added.

According to several opposition leaders, Chávez used the SENIAT to politically persecute his critics and silence the media that questioned his rule.

"That guy Cedillo was Vielma Mora's hammer in using tax collection as persecution for political reasons," said Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, director of 'La Entrevista', the most watched television show in Venezuela between 2005 and 2007.

Rodríguez argued that Cedillo unjustifiably ranked him in a higher tax bracket of 'Special' tax payer, without him earning enough income to belong to that category.

"They did not let me respond. I got another letter saying that they were doing an audit of the last four years as a 'special' taxpayer, though I wasn't one," said Rodríguez, who continues to work in Venezuela.

Cedillo, 51, said he does not know who Rodríguez is and that he has not seen Vielma Mora, now governor of Táchira state, for many years. A source told Univision that Cedillo was close to José Vicente Rangel Ávalos, the former ruling party mayor of Sucre, a municipality in Caracas, and son of former vice president José Vicente Rangel.

In her letter to a Univision reporter, Cedillo's wife explained that since leaving the post at SENIAT her husband had worked "independently on several projects, from farming and chicken production in Venezuela ... to a company importing and supplying automotive parts and technology from the United States to Latin America.''

The former official asked Univision why those who today complain of political persecution did not file their grievances officially at the time.

The journalist, Rodríguez, doesn't buy Cedillo's explanation of his presence in the United States.

"I think the fact that [ex-officials of the Chávez government] have gone to the United States, to Europe, to enjoy the good life, makes you realize that what they did was a great outrage."

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