Transitions

Something Is Rotten in the State of Venezuela

A new book alleges that Venezuela’s government increasingly resembles a criminal enterprise.

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Diosdado Cabello is the second most powerful man in Venezuela after President Nicolás Maduro. Nominally, he is the head of the country’s single-chamber legislative body, the National Assembly, but his influence extends throughout the armed forces and the judiciary. As a result, he has been called the Frank Underwood of Venezuelan politics. But if we are to believe the words of his former bodyguard, Cabello is more like Venezuela’s Pablo Escobar. According to the bodyguard’s testimony — compiled in “Bumerán Chávez,” a bombshell new book by Spanish journalist Emili Blasco — Cabello is the country’s drug kingpin. (In the photo, Cabello and President Maduro attend a military parade to commemorate the revolution.)

The book also contains a number of other allegations from formerly high-ranking chavistas, including links between the Venezuelan government and Hezbollah and shocking details about how the ruling party manipulates the country’s elections to its advantage. According to the book, the Venezuelan state has become indistinguishable from a criminal organization.

Until a few months ago, few people knew about Leamsy Salazar, the bodyguard who provided much of the book’s material. The public learned of him when he fled to the United States, allegedly joining the Witness Protection Program in exchange for his testimony before a grand jury investigating links between Venezuela’s leaders and the drug trade.

An outstanding military cadet, Salazar caught the attention of president Hugo Chávez, who asked him to join his security detail — making him part of the inner circle. When Chávez was briefly overthrown in a coup in 2002, Salazar was part of a contingent of the Presidential Guard that remained loyal to the president. Upon Chávez’s return to power, Salazar was pictured waving a large Venezuelan flag on top of a military building in celebration. The iconic photo became sort of logo for the revolution, a chavista version of the famous flag-raising photo from Iwo Jima. Chávez and Salazar became very close.

After Chávez died, Salazar was hired by Cabello to be his bodyguard as well. But not for long — according to Blasco’s book and several press reports, Salazar fled the country during his honeymoon, first cooping up in a Madrid hotel, then fleeing to the United States. According to award-winning Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda, Salazar had been negotiating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for 18 months prior to his escape.

Blasco’s book opens with a scene describing an alleged 2007 meeting between Chávez and the high command of the Colombian Marxist guerrilla group, the FARC, deep in rural Venezuela. According to Salazar, Chávez personally concocted a scheme in which the FARC would give the Venezuelan government drugs in exchange for military weaponry and cash. The drugs were to be delivered hidden inside live cattle. The objective of this plot was to weaken the government of Colombia’s then-president — and Chávez nemesis — Álvaro Uribe.

The book also describes how chavistas illegally monitor the vote count, in real time, during elections. According to Salazar’s testimony, this allowed them to alter the results of the 2013 presidential election to ensure Maduro’s victory.

Significantly, the book also includes a passage claiming that, while he was Chávez’s Foreign Minister, Venezuela’s current president, Nicolás Maduro, negotiated with Hezbollah to allow 300 of their operatives to fundraise in Venezuela. This meeting was witnessed by Rafael Isea, a former Finance Minister and governor who also fled to the United States and spoken to U.S. authorities — and to Blasco. According to his eyewitness account, the Hezbollah meeting was held in Damascus and was set up, in part, by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a close friend and political ally of Chávez’s.

The details in the book are almost too salacious to believe. However, it has been known for years that Venezuela is a major traffic point for the drug trade. In 2013, France discovered 1.3 tons of cocaine inside the hulk of an Air France plane flying from Caracas to Paris. This was the largest haul of cocaine in France’s history, and the involvement of Venezuelan military personnel, who were in charge of security at the airport, was undeniable.

The sources for the book come from chavismo’s upper echelons, and Blasco has a reputation for getting things right. During Hugo Chávez’s long convalescence in 2012-2013, Blasco accurately reported on the president’s deteriorating health before other outlets did, presumably thanks to his sources inside the U.S. intelligence community. (Blasco is the Washington correspondent for the Spanish newspaper ABC).

It is difficult to gauge the impact these allegations will have inside Venezuela. So far, the government’s tactic has been to shoot the messengers. Isea and Salazar have come under fire from government spokesmen who call them “corrupt traitors.” This week, Cabello sued three of Venezuela’s remaining independent news outlets to prevent them from repeating the claims in the book, in particular those related to his involvement with the drug trade.

Whether or not one believes these allegations, the rot within Venezuela’s public institutions is undeniable. Massive corruption scandals come and go, and few pay the price. Scarcity and crime continue unabated, and the government has no agenda to tackle the problem. Whether Venezuela is a narco-state or just a failed one, the debacle is a problem for the international community. So far, most Latin American governments have opted to look the other way or offer half-hearted attempts to foster “dialogue.”

But dialogue alone is not enough to tackle the problem: a major nation whose government may have been infiltrated by organized crime. If Venezuela is indeed a narco-state, its neighbors will be forced to speak up and take diplomatic action to find a solution. Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said recently that Maduro is not leading “a political project but, rather, a criminal organization.” If she is right, and the allegations in Blasco’s book are accurate, then the time for quiet acquiescence on the part of Venezuela’s neighbors may soon come to an end – whether they want it or not.

Photo Credit: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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