Venezuela, just over a month after its still-contested presidential election, has made global headlines in the past couple of weeks for its chronic shortages of everything from toilet paper to church wine, with rationing soon to begin in the large western state of Zulia.
That means that the country’s economic collapse is proceeding more or less as depressingly predicted — with oil prices stagnating, and with the state-owned Venezuelan oil industry’s production reducing, it means that the country has fewer and fewer dollars to fuel its increasing dependency on imported goods, a shortage that’s been exacerbated by the government’s somewhat inefficient system of auctioning off the dollars to importers and the fact that the Venezuelan bolívar is fixed at an artificially high rate.
That’s one of the reasons that Nicolás Maduro, even with the full force of a government that has excelled at blurring the line between the Venezuelan state and chavismo, only barely won election follow Hugo Chávez’s death and why his challenger Henrique Capriles is still waging a campaign in the court system, however quixotic, to expose voting fraud in April’s election that could well reveal that Capriles won the election instead.
Maduro’s loss weakened his already tenuous position within the ranks of chavismo, and the key power brokers under Chávez have largely retained their roles under Maduro, including Rafael Ramírez, the energy minister and the president of the state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), and Jorge Giordani, the former finance minister who remains the planning minister under Maduro. Forget the fact that new policymakers could potentially reverse course on Venezuela’s economy or that Giordani, Ramírez and Maduro appear to be doubling down on the same policies that have led to Venezuela’s precarious situation — it shows that Maduro lacks the power to replace his rivals with ministers who owe their loyalty to Maduro.
But as the economy melts down, it isn’t surprising to see chavismo itself breaking down. The first major breach came a couple of weeks ago, when a purported recording of a conversation emerged between Mario Silva, who hosts the popular, massively pro-chavista ‘La Hojilla’ television program, and Aramis Palacios, a Cuban lieutenant colonel in G2, the Cuban intelligence agency. Silva is as much of a true believer in chavismo as anyone in the top circle of Venezuela’s ruling elite, so if Silva has such wide doubts about Maduro (at one point he says, ‘we are in a sea of shit’), imagine what the rest of the government thinks.
It’s also, of course, somewhat of an international scandal as well — though Cuban intelligence long worked hand-in-hand with Chávez and the Venezuelan government, what exactly was a pro-Chávez talk show host doing talking to a Cuban spook? The link between the two countries became an issue during the campaign, with Capriles attacking the generous oil subsidies to Cuba that Chávez initiated a decade ago, and Maduro is widely believed to have been Havana’s top choice to succeed Chávez.
But the recording was most tantalizing with respect to Diosdado Cabello (pictured above) and his role in Venezuela’s future — no one has more power in post-Chávez than Cabello, including even Maduro.
Cabello (yes, his full name translates from the Spanish into English as ‘God-given hair’) has been a Chávez supporter since Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt, but his career really took off a decade later, when he became Chávez’s interior minister and his infrastructure minister. He was the governor of Miranda state from 2004 to 2008. Since 2011, he has been the vice president of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and since January 2012, he has been the speaker of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly). His brother, José David Cabello, heads Venezuela’s revenue collection agency. A master of the intricate chavista bureaucracy, think of Diosdado in part as the Venezuelan Dick Cheney — the octopus with tentacles in every corner.
There’s a strong argument that under Venezuela’s constitution, Cabello (and not Maduro) should have become Venezuela’s acting president following Chávez’s March 2013 death. But Maduro quite clearly had Chávez’s endorsement and Cabello certainly must have approved of the decision to install Maduro with immediate effect in March.
It’s pretty clear why — Cabello’s reputation for corruption would have made him an absolutely horrible choice to lead chavismo into the April election, especially in light of his 2008 loss of the Miranda gubernatorial election to Capriles. Among the inner circle of chavistas, Cabello is widely seen as the most corrupt, given that he and his family have developed conspicuous wealth over the years under Chávez. Unlike Maduro and former vice president Elías Jaua, he does not have incredibly strong links to Cuba’s leadership, though he does have ties to the military. More than Maduro, Jaua or Giordani, he’s seen as a pragmatic fixer, not an ideologue committed to ‘bolivarian’ revolutionary sentiments. So Maduro, despite his weaknesses, was still probably the most likely candidate to be successful in the April election.
But as Maduro’s position seems to weaken by the day, Cabello’s has strengthened, especially in light of his power base within other elements of the government. He’s indicated that he’s willing to read from a different script than Maduro. In the wake of Maduro’s dicey election victory, Cabello tweeted that the government should engage in some inquiry as to why its election performance was so poor — Maduro showed no such similar reflections about the campaign.
When Cabello presided over a brawl that ended in chavista deputies attacking opposition deputies a few weeks ago on the floor of the National Assembly, some critics argued that he allowed the attack in order to embarrass and undermine Maduro.
So throughout the recording, Silva divulges the following views on Cabello:
- Cabello controls the intelligence and police apparatuses of Venezuela.
- Cabello essentially controls — and receives funding from — both SENIAT (the revenue service his brother heads) and CADIVI (the foreign exchange board).
- Giordani allegedly threatened to leave Chávez’s government over the extent of the corruption that Cabello effected at all levels of the state.
- Cabello is essentially plotting to become the true successor to Chávez with Maduro as essentially a figurehead president.
- Maduro is ‘obliged’ to put Cabello ‘up against the wall,’ lest Cabello fully take over the government from Maduro, and that Cabello has even plotted to pit defense minister Diego Molero against Maduro, including perhaps a coup to relieve Maduro of the presidency (charges that Cabello and Molero have both vigorously denied).
You don’t have to believe that Silva’s gossip is necessarily 100% true to realize that chavismo is going through an internal civil war to determine whether Maduro or Cabello truly controls the government. Cabello doesn’t necessarily need to effect a coup against Maduro in order to win that fight, however — he has allies and loyalists in so many various parts of the Venezuelan government that he can effectively checkmate Maduro from his perch in the National Assembly. Even if Cabello could push Maduro out of office tomorrow, why would he want to take ownership of Venezuela in its immediate state anyway if he can control enough behind the scenes to ensure his continued role in diverting sufficient gains to himself and his supporters?
A more likely possibility is that Cabello could gradually co-opt the opposition’s position, move toward the center in the coming years, advocate a more orthodox economic policy, and break from Maduro in the 2015 parliamentary elections to essentially become Venezuela’s opposition. He need not even form a new party or declare a grand rupture, he need only control enough members of the National Assembly, and that may well become easier after years of rationing and economic hardship, especially after the memory of Chávez fades and Venezuelans come to associate Maduro with failure. After all, Maduro will be eligible to be recalled in 2016 as a legal matter — if Cabello doesn’t strike, Capriles and the opposition most certainly will.
Even in countries with relatively healthy institutions and economies, feuds at the top levels of a government can be incredibly destabilizing (witness the friction between former United Kingdom prime minister Tony Blair and former chancellor Gordon Brown). In a country where there’s a credible threat of one figure leading a military-backed coup against the other, however, it’s all the more crippling. Whether you think that Maduro’s victory was legitimate or fraudulent, or whether you think Chávez was a savior or a charlatan, the last thing that Venezuela needs is an internecine battle within chavismo when it faces so many more pressing structural, economic, political and diplomatic challenges.