Pernil wars: the sinister underbelly to Portugal’s business connections with Venezuela

On the face of it, the ‘pernil de porco’ (pork knuckle) saga was a bit of Christmas pantomime: trouble-beset Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro promised his countrymen container loads of State-subsidised Portuguese pork for Christmas, and when they didn’t arrive, he blamed the suppliers, crying “sabotage”.

There were riots in the streets (admittedly involving protestors upset about lots of things, not just the lack of Portuguese pork), and indignation in Portugal.

Augusto Santos Silva, minister for foreign affairs, was impelled to utter perhaps the most bizarre sentence to come out of the festive holidays: “The Portuguese government doesn’t have the power to sabotage pork knuckle”.

The drama then shifted to include “the Americans” as part of an international trade embargo affecting the country, and then ‘shock horror’, much of the pork was ‘discovered’, held up in Colombia.

Finally delivered to furious Venezuelans just before New Year, the story took an ugly swerve when a young pregnant woman waiting in line for her pork was shot in the head.

Alexandra Conopio did not survive her injuries, but the story for all intents and purposes has now lost popular traction.

The ‘sabotage-that-wasn’t’ involved the Portuguese companies supplying the pork deciding they didn’t want to run up any more debts: Maduro already owes over €40 million for pork exports, with the money waiting to be paid going back at least a year.

But according to alternative online news website Jornal Tornado, this is all just the tip of a very ‘iffy’ underbelly of intrigue involving Portugal, Venezuela and Iran (yes, Iran!)

The story goes back to 2010 when a company known as Iguarivarius was set up to start selling agricultural produce to various countries, including Venezuela.

Iguarivarius’ president is Mário Lino, a former Socialist minister under José Sócrates, while its official spokesperson is the former chief of staff of former defence minister Paulo Portas – the man so often remembered for his purchase of billion euro submarines mired in controversy and complicated contra-deals.

As Jornal Tornado explains, the official government version that pork knuckle exports have ‘nothing to do with it’ wobbles slightly when one looks at all the players involved: “In numerous cases the people in these private business deals are exactly the same as those in public business that involve colossal bank loans that are ultimately paid by all of us…”

Tornado goes on to add that Venezuela has always been on the radar when it came to contradeals signed in the time of the submarines. Indeed, Ferrostaal – the company “responsible for the deals” – “had vast links with Iran and Venezuela”.

As the much-more mainstream Observador stresses, Iguarivarius “has links to influential political figures and just in 2016 showed growth in business volume of over 40%”.

The company’s “rapid ascension” has seen Public Ministry investigators launch an inquiry. At issue were alleged crimes of tax evasion and money laundering. There was even the suggestion that Spanish meat had been sold as Portuguese.

The online news service adds that although the investigation opened “about a year ago, there is no information on its progress”.

Jornal Tornado suggests there is an “immense web of business” ventures involved, and that pork knuckles are, in the end, “just an epiphenomenon” (literal meaning: a by-product of very little consequence).

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