Hedge fund manager arranged Boris Johnson’s trip to meet Venezuela’s Maduro


A below-the-radar trip to Venezuela by Boris Johnson to meet autocratic president Nicolás Maduro was arranged by a hedge fund manager interested in normalising diplomatic relations between London and Caracas, according to people familiar with the matter.

Former JPMorgan banker Maarten Petermann, co-founder of London-based Merlyn Advisors, organised the former UK prime minister’s visit by private jet in early February, according to two of the people.

Johnson’s team has said he was acting as a diplomatic back channel for the UK with the “active support” of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

However, a senior Foreign Office source said Johnson was “doing his own thing”.

Johnson’s spokesperson declined to comment on questions about Petermann’s role but said: “Nothing commercial was raised in the meeting. The only matters of discussion were democracy, human rights and Ukraine.”

Petermann, whose hedge fund was launched with reported plans to manage at least $500mn of assets, did not respond to questions about the visit. Merlyn Advisors did not respond to a request for comment.

Merlyn co-founder Alessandro Barnaba told the FT he was “not aware” of Petermann’s involvement.

Maduro’s vice-president Delcy Rodriguez was instrumental in arranging the meeting on the Venezuelan side, according to another person with knowledge of the matter. The Venezuelan government declined to comment on the meeting.

The Foreign Office said earlier this week: “Boris Johnson was visiting in a personal capacity and not acting on behalf of the UK government.”

Johnson’s visit, breaking off from a family holiday in the Dominican Republic, was first reported by The Sunday Times last weekend. It has caused controversy because of the West’s chilly relations with Caracas. Petermann’s role has not been previously reported.

Maduro has a $15mn price on his head in the US for alleged drug trafficking. The government in Caracas is also being investigated by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity, including torture and extrajudicial executions.

The UK does not accept its legitimacy following Maduro’s victory in 2018 elections that were boycotted by the opposition and considered a sham by Western countries. London’s top diplomat in Caracas, Colin Dick, is officially described as a chargé d’affaires ad interim, rather than a full ambassador.

The US led a drive after the election to impose crippling economic sanctions on Caracas in what proved an unsuccessful attempt to oust Maduro. Last October Washington relaxed the measures to try to coax the Venezuelan leader into allowing democratic elections this year.

Maduro responded to the olive branch with a fresh crackdown on the opposition and a threat to annex most of Guyana. The UK sent a warship to the neighbouring country at the end of last year as part of Britain’s backing for the Commonwealth nation.

Merlyn Advisors, controlled by Barnaba and Petermann, “pursues a special situations strategy and as such invests across a variety of asset classes and markets,” according to its sparse website. It was first authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority in 2019.

Petermann, 45, has in the past two years shown interest in the UK normalising relations with Venezuela, according to one of the people with knowledge of the trip and a third person with knowledge of his interests.

He is also a trustee of the Aspinall Foundation, an animal conservation charity which hired Carrie Johnson — Boris’s wife — as head of communications in 2021.

Petermann has boasted of his close ties with Johnson and told contacts his fund likes to stay behind the scenes, according to the third person.

Johnson’s team said the former premier received a briefing in-country from Foreign Office officials ahead of the meeting and “delivered the FCDO script” during it. They said Johnson was not advised by the UK government against undertaking the meeting, and received no complaint afterwards.

Johnson’s spokesperson said he “met Venezuelan government officials with active support from the FCDO and the knowledge of the foreign secretary, in order to emphasise the need for Venezuela to embrace a proper democratic process”.

The spokesperson added that Johnson made clear there could be no hope of normalisation in relations until Venezuela “fully embraces democracy and respects the territorial integrity of its neighbours”.

Despite Maduro’s recent behaviour, the US and European nations are reluctant to reimpose full sanctions because they want to improve the supply of oil and gas from Venezuela to world markets amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

A normalisation of western relations could help push up the price of Venezuelan debt on secondary markets, make it easier to pursue big gas deals to replace supplies formerly sourced from Russia, and help resolve the fate of $2bn of Venezuelan central bank gold reserves held at the Bank of England.

In December, Caracas signed a licence for Shell to operate the Dragon gasfield together with Trinidad and Tobago’s National Gas Company, a deal licensed by the US sanctions body Ofac. The field is rich in gas and lies offshore in Venezuelan waters close to Trinidad and Tobago. BP is also said to be interested in natural gas opportunities in the area.

The Foreign Office has not changed its position on Venezuela in public but some UK diplomats have said privately that the diplomatic limbo is unsatisfactory. “We have full diplomatic relations at the moment with 50 countries which are worse than Maduro,” one senior UK diplomat said.   

Despite Johnson’s exit from Downing Street in September 2022 amid scandals and mass ministerial resignations, the former prime minister has developed a highly lucrative career outside parliament.

He earned more than £4.5mn from speaking engagements and an advance from a speakers bureau in the subsequent seven months, according to his declarations in the MPs’ register of financial interests before he left parliament.