ATLANTA (CN) — Venezuela can’t claim sovereign immunity in a lawsuit brought by a Florida man accusing Venezuelan diplomats of making off with his priceless collection of Simón Bolivar artifacts without paying him a dime, the 11th Circuit ruled Thursday.
Simón Bolívar was an 19th Century military and political leader who played a leading role in the establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule.
Bolívar spent the last days of his eventful life in the home of a friend, Joaquín de Mier, who took possession of many of the general’s personal effects and professional mementos after Bolívar’s death.
The trove of artifacts was passed down through the de Mier family, and it was eventually inherited by de Mier’s great, great grandson, plaintiff-appellant Ricardo Devengoechea.
Among the items he received were thousands of Bolívar’s historic documents, including governmental documents and Bolívar’s correspondence and other writings; Napoleon Bonaparte’s ornamental epaulets; Bolívar’s one-of-a-kind Liberation Medal of Peru; and a lock of general’s hair.
In court documents Devengoechea says the collection is worth millions of dollars.
As recounted in the 11th Circuit ruling, Devengoechea brought the collection with him when he moved to the United States in 2007, and a short time later, he was contacted by Venezuelan official, who expressed an interest in purchasing it.
Devengoechea claims he and the officials came to a purchase agreement for the items, and he took the items to Venezuela, via a government jet, in October 2007.
He sued the Venezuelan government five years later after it neither paid for the collection nor returned it.
A federal judge in South Florida rejected Venezuela’s motion to dismiss the case, holding that it had on jurisdiction of at least some of Devengoechea’s claims under the commercial-activity exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
Venezuela appealed, but the 11th Circuit on Thursday affirmed the lower court ruling, finding that Venezuela engaged in commercial activity by negotiating to purchase the collection, did not attempt to seize the items using its sovereign powers, and essentially acted as a “private foreign buyer,” therefore, it cannot claim sovereign immunity.
Writing for the panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum said, “Venezuela engaged in all challenged actions during the course of negotiations for the purchase of a private collection of artifacts. It did not seize the items through its police or other sovereign powers.
“Rather, like a private buyer could do, Venezuela flew to the United States to meet with the seller, examined the collection, and negotiated to examine it further and return or purchase it. This is the type of activity that private persons and corporations regularly engage in. Nothing about this activity is uniquely or peculiarly sovereign in nature,” the ruling states.
Venezuela’s claim that the lawsuit doesn’t show that the Venezuelan diplomats who met with Devengoechea acted with “actual authority” also falls flat, the three-judge panel said.
One of the Venezuelan participants in the negotiations was Delcy Rodriguez, who was the coordinator general of the office of the vice president of Venezuela at the time, the court documents say.
Rodriguez, who is now the president of Venezuela’s Constitutional Assembly, also served as the nation’s foreign minister from 2014 until 2017.
“Sure, the purported Venezuelan officials could have been out on an unauthorized frolic when they took Venezuela’s jet more than 1,500 miles to the United States, paid for Devengoechea’s roundtrip ticket from Venezuela to Florida to pick up additional items from the collection, arranged for Devengoechea to receive a Venezuelan letter of introduction to expedite the renewal of his passport, and engaged in negotiations for the purchase of the Bolivar collection,” Rosenbaum wrote, “But … the far more natural reading of these allegations … requires us to conclude that Devengoechea sufficiently alleged that the purported Venezuelan officials acted with actual authority.”
The 11th Circuit remanded the case back to the federal court in South Florida for further proceedings.