- By Daniel Lansberg-RodríguezDaniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
Within the pantheon of Latin American political archetypes, few figures are as reviled as the intelligence chief, whose cowled outline is often found nestled beside populist strongmen and tin pot dictators alike. Fujimori had his Montesinos, Trujillo had Johnny Abbes, and from 2004-2009, Hugo Chávez had Hugo "The Chicken" Carvajal Barrios.
Chávez’s heirs very nearly lost Carvajal last week when he was seized by Aruban authorities cooperating with an outstanding U.S. warrant. Days later, Carvajal was released from jail in a confusing chain of events that saw Dutch authorities override Aruban ones, as Caracas passionately declared that the arrest was illegal and violated international treaties.
In 2008, as he was nearing the end of his tenure as intelligence chief, Carvajal became one of three high-ranking Venezuelan regime officials to be accused by the United States Treasury Department of illegally aiding FARC rebels in neighboring Colombia, which it classifies as a "narco-terrorist organization." Specifically, the Americans charged him with supplying weapons and fake documents to the rebels and protecting their shipment routes and camps along the Venezuela-Colombia border. These accusations came at a time of escalating diplomatic fury between the United States and Venezuela; Chávez had recently accused the United States of attempting to kill him, followed by tit-for-tat expulsions of ambassadors and a bevy of furious rhetoric. Once the diplomatic furor had died down some, however, the charges against Carvajal — ignored entirely by Venezuelan authorities — seemed to have been largely forgotten.
Then, in January 2014, the now retired general and intelligence czar was granted a cushy posting at the Venezuelan consulate on nearby Aruba, a tranquil and idyllic vacation destination particularly popular amongst the Chávista elite. It was upon arriving in Aruba to occupy his post that Carvajal was detained at the airport by local authorities acting at the behest of the United States. This initial arrest led to a rush of excitement both among Venezuela’s vestigial opposition and within the U.S. intelligence community. If Aruba indeed extradited Carvajal to the United States, he might have been willing to cut a deal with the United States — and any testimony or insider information he shared could potentially humiliate, or even undermine, the chavista regime.
And he would know a great deal. The retired general was a close associate of Chávez’s from the time they first took up arms together in one of the failed 1992 coups against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. Carvajal was intelligence director during a critical period in which the tightening of ties with Cuba’s G-2 intelligence agency began, persecutions against the regime’s political opponents became more open, and cooperation with FARC forces and Iranian Mullahs became more entrenched. Furthermore, as Chávez was famously mistrustful of his lieutenants, Carvajal would likely have overseen the monitoring of today’s Venezuelan military and party leadership while they were still coming up through the ranks — including currently influential caporegimes such as National Assembly Chief Diosdado Cabello and PDVSA chief Rafael Ramírez, who are widely alleged to have themselves engaged in serious corruption and have ties with narco-criminal organizations.
Faced with the prospect of a having party secrets exposed, the famously secretive Venezuelan regime argued that his detention violated Carvajal’s diplomatic immunity under the 1961 Vienna Convention. The Aruban judge tasked with deciding the matter was unconvinced, however, deciding that immunity was unavailable as Carvajal had not yet been confirmed in his post, and since the crimes he was accused of (and the warrant) predated his becoming a diplomat. The judge granted Carvajal a 2-month stay during was slated to he would remain on Aruba while the U.S. presented its case for his extradition. Then, on Sunday, the Dutch government (Aruba is a semi-autonomous nation within the Kingdom of the Netherlands) played deus ex machina, superseding the local authorities to secure Carvajal’s release.
Following Carvajal’s return home, the United States complained that Venezuela had threatened and intimidated Aruba during the crisis. For example, Caracas canceled all national flights to Aruba, a gesture of no small consequence given that in Aruba’s tourism-based economy, Venezuelans make up the second largest visitor contingent.
On Monday night, Aruba’s chief prosecutor, Peter Blanken, came forward with even more evidence of Venezuelan threats, according to the Wall Street Journal, and claimed that Venezuela had threatened to withdraw its management and export links to an Antillean oil refinery, and that Venezuelan naval vessels had even been seen prowling the outskirts of Aruba and Curacao over the weekend. The Dutch Foreign Ministry was quick to dismiss such talk, however, assuring all parties that their decision had been based on legality alone, and that any Venezuelan ships would have merely been on an exercise.
Meanwhile, Venezuelans themselves are deeply divided on how to interpret this bizarre series of events. Upon arriving back in Caracas, Carvajal received a hero’s welcome and was transported directly from the airport to an auditorium packed with nearly 1,000 pro-government supporters, where he was embraced by President Nicolás Maduro, who declared his detention a "kidnapping" and his release a great "people’s victory." The president also noted, with his characteristic coherence, that "the Chicken is alive and free thanks to this permanent miracle in which we all live." (Carvajal agreed, noting that he felt sorry for the poor Arubans whose corrupt officials were almost certainly being bought off, as seen by his own recent persecution.)
Following the celebration, Maduro turned to more serious matters. He accused the United States of having orchestrated the whole sordid affair out of "desperation," and announced that he would be a guest on Diosdado Cabello’s television show later this week to present further evidence on the matter.
Among the Venezuelan opposition, however, Carvajal’s release resulted in disbelief, confusion, and anger. Diego Arria, former mayor of Caracas turned colorful presidential candidate, suggested that it was the close business ties between Dutch Shell and PDVSA (Venezuela’s national oil company) that motivated the Netherlands to override local authorities. Indeed, in his view, the Venezuelan government may even have gotten their ally Vladimir Putin to exert pressure on the Netherlands still further (a highly imaginative scenario, given the current Russo-Dutch relationship).
Elsewhere, on Caracas Chronicles (the go-to blog for all things Venezuela), Venezuela-watchers frantically sought to reconcile the Chicken’s unexpected liberation with their unrequited longing for some kind of justice. This was an unlikely victory for the Venezuelan government, and a lucky one. They are likely to be a bit more careful with Carvajal from now on, pampering him, but making sure he stays safely in his coop.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.