- By Juan Cristóbal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution.
Venezuelans are used to seeing private political conversations thrust into the public sphere. The mischief-maker most known for airing gossip is Mario Silva, the chavista shock jock and host of the state TV daily commentary show "The Razorblade." Silva has long made a practice of broadcasting the apparently compromising conversations of politicians that displeased the late President Hugo Chávez. Chávez would even frequently lend his support by calling in; sometimes he even appeared on the air.
A self-declared Marxist and radical revolutionary, Silva has long been untouchable. His broadcasting of private conversations — something Venezuelan law expressly forbids — is typically done with complete impunity. Yesterday, however, the proverbial shoe was on the other foot, as Venezuela’s opposition presented a secret recording of Silva himself that shocked the political spectrum.
In the one-hour recording made public yesterday, Silva is overheard in a face-to-face conversation with an agent of Cuba’s Intelligence Services, giving him what would appear to be a briefing of the inner workings of chavista corruption. The main target of Silva’s rant was none other than Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly (Venezuela’s single-chamber Parliament) most recently (in)famous for taking away opposition lawmakers’ right to speak inside Parliament, along with their salaries.
Long seen as the main rival to Maduro, Cabello comes across in the recording as a scheming oligarch, wanting "to control everything" but "not interested in being president." According to Silva, Cabello is the head of a tangled web of fraudulent companies taking advantage of Venezuela’s currency exchange controls. He said that Cabello uses his influence to fleece the state by obtaining cheap dollars without merit, which he then sells in the black market for enormous profits.
Cabello’s main accomplices in this scheme according to Silva are the Venezuelan tax agency and CADIVI, the office in charge of administering the fixed exchange rate regime. He also claimed that there’s a faction within the military that’s beholden to Cabello and opposed to Maduro. Silva alleges that Venezuela’s recent devaluations were carried out as a way of restraining Cabello and his cronies.
More seriously, Silva claims that the Venezuelan elections system can be tampered with, and wonders if recent election results were modified by the Cabello faction. He suggests that Maduro is a weak president who is controlled by his wife. Finally, he also says that, a few days before the election, Maduro saw his own face magically appear in a painting of Chávez that hangs in the museum where Chávez is buried. (Silva says he feared that if the story were leaked, Maduro would be labeled as "insane" and would lose the election.)
It’s too soon to tell what repercussions the recording will have. So far, chavismo has put on a brave face. Silva claimed the whole thing was fake, and blamed the CIA and Israel’s Mossad (Silva has been accused of anti-Semitism by Jewish organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center). And while Cabello has dismissed the allegations, it’s clear the topic will not go away soon.
Most in the opposition believe the conversation was taped by Cuba’s Intelligence Services to purge Cabello and his cronies from the chavista movement. To them, one of the more shocking aspects of this imbroglio was witnessing how closely high-ranking chavistas kowtow to Cuban Intelligence, which is widely believed to control large swathes of the Venezuelan state apparatus. It seemed like the conversation between Silva and the officer was one of many "reports." During the tape, Silva frequently referred to advice Fidel Castro had given him on Venezuela, at one point saying that Castro had always wondered why Chávez didn’t simply "do away with bourgeois elections altogether."
Chavismo is a movement that likes to deal with internal conflict in the shadows. This event marks the first time serious rifts between heavyweights in the movement are displayed so openly. It would be surprising if this didn’t cause some sort of purge, with either Cabello or Silva being thrown under the proverbial bus.
The way that it plays out will reflect who holds the key to power within chavismo: either the heavily corrupt, nationalist military wing headed by Cabello or the radical, pro-Cuban wing that Silva represents. Early indications are that Silva is backtracking on all the claims he made on tape and even suspending his show for unexplained "medical reasons." Though still early, Silva’s apparent self-immolation suggests Cabello’s power inside the revolution is remarkably resilient.
As disturbing as the revelations are, they are not terribly shocking. Authoritarian regimes seldom find it easy to handle succession when a larger-than-life leader dies. It happened in Russia with the de-Stalinization process after the death of the dictator. It also happened in China when Mao Zedong died and his successors quickly acted against the "Gang of Four." Something similar could be under way in Venezuela.
Then again, this could also mark the beginning of the unraveling of chavismo. This echoes what happened in Peru in the year 2000, when a series of videos of politicians being bribed leaked by an intelligence mastermind led to the toppling of Alberto Fujimori’s regime. The opposition has said more videos are on their way.
Another possibility is that nothing happens. Venezuela is a country used to scandal, and with chavistas showing remarkable tolerance to corruption within their own ranks, no allegations against chavismo ever seem to awaken the institutions from their slumber. For example, a few months ago a former justice in the Supreme Tribunal fled to the United States, claiming that the entire judiciary was run like a criminal organization. Nothing came of his claims.
Regardless, it’s Silva in the spotlight for now. By choosing to fall on his own sword and take one for the team, he’s finding that "The Razorblade" cuts both ways.