Venezuela's first lady, Cilia Flores, is one of the country's chief power brokers and a consummate wheeler-dealer who, with the help of relatives, runs a voracious enterprise dubbed the Flower Shop.
One of the clearest signs of tyranny in Venezuela has to be the pervasive nepotism and behind-the-scenes power enjoyed by President Nicolás Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores de Maduro.
In Venezuela, it's said that Flores works in the shadows but is somehow "always in the right place," with one commentator observing that she is constantly "surrounded by an extensive web of collaborators" — including relatives, with whom she has forged a clique often dubbed the floristería, or the "Flower Shop," which is thought to control every facet of Venezuelan politics.
She is certainly Venezuela's most powerful woman.
From modest origins, Flores is 68 years old and a lawyer by training. She began her ascent as defense attorney for the then lieutenant-colonel Hugo Chávez, who was jailed after his failed attempt at a coup d'état in 1992. She offered him her services and obtained his release, which won her his unstinting support for the rest of his life.
Flores met her husband, who is 10 years younger, when he was a bodyguard to Chávez. They soon became inseparable, but only formalized their relationship in 2013, the year Maduro became president.
Favoritism in important governmental positions
Nine years before her marriage to Maduro, Flores became the first woman to head the National Assembly, which fueled her growing influence over the ruling socialist party PSUV — not to mention her flourishing nepotism.
She said she was proud to have family serve in the assembly.
In 2007, she rigged an examination process to fill 90 parliamentary offices with her own people. The beneficiaries included individuals who hadn't even sat for the exams, others who had their grades inflated as well as people barred by the Ombudsman's office from holding public positions.
The lucky individuals included 40 relatives and friends of Flores. The exams jury also included a cousin and a daughter-in-law of Flores: the former approved the hiring of at least six relatives, and the latter approved the hiring of her husband, mother and four more relatives.
Flores was naturally accused of nepotism, which she calmly dismissed as political attacks.
She said she was proud to have her family serve in the assembly, "most of whose members are revolutionary men and women."
After anti-corruption NGO Transparencia Venezuela denounced the favoritism, and following media reports, Flores called journalists covering the story "pen mercenaries" and had them thrown out of parliament — which she has rarely bothered to attend. Over several legislative terms she has become one of the country's leading parliamentarians in terms of rates of absenteeism.
Perhaps the scandal most harmful to her concerned two of her nephews, charged with smuggling cocaine into the U.S. Arrested in late 2015, Efraín Campos Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas were convicted and jailed in the U.S. Their aunt maintains that they have been kidnapped.
And yet, a recording has one of them admit to "making money for many years," while another recording has the same nephew admit to earning $5 million for an operation.
The suspect is also recorded complaining to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official that the Flores "clan" wasn't as efficient as the media claimed. Apparently, he had asked his cousin, Erick Malpica Flores, who is a senior financial officer at the state oil firm PDVSA, to approve payments to particular firms to which the PDVSA owed money. That would have earned him a commission, but his cousin refused.
Cilia Flores and Nicolás Maduro (middle at the II Alba-TCP-Petrocaribe Summit
Despite not always helping out, Malpica Flores is the first lady's favorite nephew.
Malpica, 40, is trained in marketing. He began his political career in 2005 as director-general of Administrative Management and Services in parliament, when Maduro was speaker. Maduro took him along when he became foreign minister in 2006, and then, when he became vice president in 2012, put him in charge of the vice-president's office.
When his 'uncle' became president, Malpica took over important financial positions.
When his 'uncle' became president, Malpica took over important financial positions: first as deputy-treasurer, then director-general of Bandes (the Economic and Social Development Bank of Venezuela) and lastly as Treasurer of the Nation. There, he handled the national budget, and other financial and credit funds that were never audited, with little information provided about them. His cousins' trafficking fiasco somewhat ruined his assiduity in keeping a low profile.
Over just a few days in 2015, Malpica, as one of the directors at PDVSA, registered a dozen or so family firms with limited startup capital and vague corporate objectives, all in his and his parents' names. One of the reasons for the move may have been to be able to open multiple bank accounts and take advantage of loopholes in exchange rate controls.
The range of activities, brazenness and deft versatility of the Maduro-Flores "flower shop" makes the indiscretions of the cheekiest of first ladies elsewhere and from the past seem like child's play.