For all the drama around the Trump administration’s response to Russia’s hacking of the U.S. election, a certain classic element of the spy drama is missing. Because all the action has been taken place online, there’s been no handover of suitcases full of cash. What fun is uncovering a ring of corruption if you can’t bust open a Walter White-style storage locker full of bills? Well, if American drama has you let down this season, then feel free to look abroad, where cash is king in several ongoing scandals.
Cash is at the root of Qatar’s big diplomatic crisis
Donald Trump joined the diplomatic fray in Persian Gulf dust-up Wednesday, tweeting that he backed the move led by Saudi Arabia to isolate neighboring Qatar for its alleged funding of Islamist extremists. The precise cause of the break between Qatar and its former partners, who are mostly part of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, is murky. But like all good divorces, money is at the root of the trouble. According to the Financial Times, Saudi officials were reportedly upset at a massive ransom payment made by the Qatari government to rescue a group of royals who had been kidnapped in Iraq. Some of the roughly $1 billion in payoffs went to Iranian security officials and al-Qaeda affiliates, neither of which are particular friends of the Saudis. But when you’re delivering payments to terrorists, apparently Venmo won’t do. The money was reportedly passed on using the time-honored delivery method of suitcases full of cash.
The president who pays cash in advance
Eight years after the Zimbabwe stopped using its own currency in to end a period of hyperinflation, government policies have caused an acute cash crisis. The economy operates largely on U.S. dollars, but the central bank has limited large withdrawals. The shortage means that it can cost as much as $120 to obtain a $100 bill (larger denominations are easier to smuggle out of the country).
And yet, at least one man has ready access to hard currency. President Robert Mugabe has been traveling the world like George Clooney in “Up in the Air.” Last year, the government spent more than $36 million over 10 months to send Mugabe on at least 20 trips, according to Reuters, while in comparison the entire annual budget for parliament is only $30 million. In 2011, Zimbabwe’s then-finance minister, Tendai Biti, called foreign travel “a cancer in the management of our public resources.” Now in opposition, Biti says the president’s staff are abusing the large per diems they receive when they travel.
It’s certainly not clear what Mugabe gets from traveling. He flew to Cancun last month for a international conference, but despite being one of the few heads of state attending, he did not address the group. He nonetheless flew in style, reportedly leasing a private plane from Bahrain because the state-run Air Zimbabwe is unable to safely operate its planes. That doesn’t bother the minister in charge of the airline, though. “The president is a good customer,” he told a reporter. Mugabe pays cash up front.
Bags stuffed with cash: You can’t have just one
As America consumes itself with political turmoil, Brazil continues to show the world how scandal is done. You might not think that it could get worse for a president than having recordings released of an alleged scheme to bribe a former lawmaker into silence. (Temer says he has done nothing wrong.) But on Saturday, police arrested a Rodrigo Rocha Loures, a key aide to Brazilian President Michel Temer, who was elevated to the presidency after then-President Dilma Rousseff was impeached.
The aide was filmed receiving a bag allegedly stuffed with $154,000 worth of bribe money, which he later turned over the police, and the danger for Temer is that Loures might be induced into a plea bargain against the president. There are signs that Loures is under real pressure. Newspapers reported Tuesday that he had asked prosecutors not to shave his head, as had they had done to a recent famous convict.
Either way, that bag full of cash is just the tip of the iceberg. The owners of JBS, the meatpacking company behind the bribery scheme, told authorities in their own plea bargain that they had spent some $184 million to bribe nearly 1,900 politicians.
When cash is outlawed, only outlaws will get paid
President Nicolas Maduro has tried to ban the use of large amounts of cash in Venezuela, but as usual, the rules don’t apply to him. Since late last year, the government has repeatedly floated and then delayed plans to take the largest bill out of circulation in what they call efforts to crack down on the illicit economy. (In reality, Venezuela’s economic woes are in part caused by the limits Maduro and company have put on the currency.)
But Maduro himself is allegedly no stranger to large amounts of cash. According to the political consultant who ran his predecessor’s 2012 presidential campaign, as reported by the AP, Maduro paid her $11 million in cash. In a twist, that money was allegedly provided by the Brazilian firms behind Temer’s scandal.
While the Qataris prefer suitcases, Venezuela does it entirely differently. According to the consultant, the money was delivered in binders. And for the Brazilians, on whose behalf she was also allegedly funneled cash, the money was delivered in shoe boxes. Meanwhile, if campaigners can’t get access to money in the country, their outside supporters are happy to help. Bloomberg reported that supporters in the U.S. and elsewhere are using crowd-funding sites to send supplies to protesters. If you can’t send cash, the next best thing is a gas mask.
Qatar. The crisis was, allegedly, kicked off in part by Qatar’s $1 billion payout to Iranian-backed militias, according to the FT. The money was supposedly delivered in suitcases full of cash.
Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe came to a UN Oceans conference this week, despite leading a landlocked country. Meanwhile, the country is an intense cash crisis, as $100 US bills sell for $120 on average (in US bills). But when Mugabe travels, he pays cash up front, according to the country’s transport minister. “He is a good customer.”
Brazil. Temer is in thin ice after recordings of him allegedly approving the bribery over another politician were approved. Making matters worse, his close aide and friend, Rodrigo Rocha Loures, was arrested over the weekend. In the process, he handed over a bag to police containing $154,000 in cash.
Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro has tried to ban the use of large amounts of cash in Venezuela, but as usual, the rules don’t apply to him. According to the political consultant who ran his predecessor’s campaign, Maduro paid her $11 million in cash allegedly provided by the Brazilian firms behind Temer’s scandal. But if the Qataris prefer suitcases, Venezuela does it entirely differently. According to the consultant, the money was delivered in binders. And for the Brazilians, on whose behalf she was also allegedly funneled cash, the money was delivered in shoe boxes.