Sometime in the three months since Hugo Chávez was pronounced dead, his favorite television mouthpiece, a broadcaster called Mario Silva, delivered himself of his sorrow regarding Venezuela in the course of a highly private conversation. It was a riveting aria: fifty-three minutes in which Silva told of coup plots, death threats, power struggles within the heart of chavismo. Astonishingly, Mario Silva’s complaint was sung not to a friend or colleague, not to a Venezuelan official or source but to Aramis Palacios, a lieutenant colonel of Cuba’s G2 intelligence directorate, and we know what was said because someone—a spy for the opposition? secret agent Palacios himself?—has made an audio recording of this conversation available to the Venezuelan opposition.
The Cuban government depends for its very survival on the oil Hugo Chávez mainlined to Havana until his death in March, and so it’s not surprising that its leaders would have felt the need to develop their own intelligence sources—men like Palacios—in Chávez’s Venezuela. What is surprising is that the canary should turn out to be Mario Silva—always so unctuous in his dealings with the powerful, poisonous when in striking range of the weak. Silva’s program, La Hojilla (“The Razor Blade”), on which Chávez liked to appear, was where the regime’s enemy of the moment was always dipped in the acid of Silva’s scorn. On his program, opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles was always a “fascist,” and, lately, after Capriles lost the presidential election to Nicolás Maduro, Hugo Chávez’s designated successor, by less than 2 percent of the vote, an “assassin.” After the opposition showed a cell-phone video last month of chavista members of the congressional body attacking opposition members, breaking the nose of one and beating another black and blue, it was Silva who devoted an hour or so to explaining how the video should actually be seen as an oppositionist assault on chavistas. Silva would seem by any light a cynical man. But in the audio he is earnest, troubled, even depressed, as he confesses to Palacios. “I have a visceral, emotional, fucked up fear…that we’re sending all this shit [chavista power and the chavista state] to hell,” he tells the Cuban agent.
Silva could easily be depressed about the parlous state of the Venezuelan economy, besieged as it is by inflation, crucial shortages, and disorganization, or by the opposition’s growing appeal. But what troubles him instead is the roiling fight for power inside the chavista leadership, the tenuous popular appeal of the new president, Nicolás Maduro, the possible plots against Maduro from within chavismo, and certain of his perceived eccentricities.
“Listen to this,” he says to Palacios. “[Maduro] sent me a photo [during his electoral campaign, and told me] that his—Maduro’s—face had appeared in the portrait of the comandante [Hugo Chávez] that’s in [Chávez’s mausoleum].” Perplexed, Silva called a party hierarch to ask what he should do about this and was warned to stay away from the story. “Watch what you say, Mario, because in two days they could bring down the entire campaign by saying that Maduro is crazy,” the hierarch, Jorge Rodriguez, said…. “But in my wicked and very maquiavélico head,” Silva tells Palacios, “I think that this whole thing was fomented by Diosdado Cabello, because he knows that if this got airplay it would be un boom [a scandal.]”
With this, Diosdado Cabello, aged fifty, current president of Venezuela’s national legislative body, the Asamblea Nacional, slopes on the stage. He is a former army lieutenant, former conspirator with Chávez in their failed coup attempt of 1992, former governor of the state of Miranda (which he lost to opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in 2008), defeated rival for the post of Chávez’s dauphin, and the man Silva refers to as “that very great son of a whore.” In the conversation with the Cuban agent, Silva is accusing Diosdado Cabello of immense, hardly conceivable corruption, conspiring constantly against Maduro from within the chavista state, and possibly plotting a coup.
“Remember that in a previous report I said that Diosdado’s sources of financing had to be cut off?” Silva asks, before listing the numerous sources of Cabello’s allegedly vast fortune and dangerous power. These include, Silva says, the currency exchange supervisory body and the port authority—the latter in the hands of Diosdado’s brother, Jose David Cabello—the military and civilian intelligence services and the national police, as well as civilian high government officials. It has apparently become common for businessmen favored by the government to bring in gigantic authorized dollar “loans” from abroad and then sell the currency on the black market at two or three times the official exchange rate. Silva explains how one of Chávez’s most trusted and reputable advisors has intervened to stop an investigation into this sort of money-trafficking by other government officials, apparently Cabello allies. “We are immersed in a sea of shit, compadre, and we haven’t realized it yet,” Silva laments.
But his ultimate concern is Diosdado Cabello’s hold on a significant proportion of the officer corps, and the possibility that Cabello has understood that he doesn’t need the presidency to control the state in Venezuela. “They’re going to create shortages. They’re going to create various messes simultaneously, Palacios. They’re going to create conditions so that…the whole administration becomes ungovernable so that two years down the line they can call for (Maduro’s) repeal.”
In the regime created by Hugo Chávez’s highly personalistic approach to government—what in Latin America is called caudillismo—the problem isn’t so much Maduro’s lack of popularity but his lack of institutional backing. The new president came up in the world as a militant in a small radical left-wing party and later as a union activist. Before he was elevated to the vice-presidency by Chávez he spent six years as foreign minister. He has no political base of his own. In contrast, Diosdado Cabello has been a leader of the chavista umbrella party and its organizaciones populares, in addition to his ascendancy over all the intelligence agencies and much of the officer corps. And he is an army man: he held the rank of lieutenant before he was evicted from the army after the coup attempt that brought Chávez to public attention in 1992. It is not surprising that he would have seen himself as Hugo Chávez’s natural successor, but the comandante took to his grave the reasons why he didn’t agree with that choice.
How credible is Mario Silva, a man who has made a career of on-screen libel? How much of the access he claims to have is he inventing? How much of a patriot can someone be who is caught in the act of delivering an intelligence report to a foreign power, even—or perhaps especially—if that foreign power is his government’s strategic ally? How big is the mess President Nicolás Maduro now finds himself in, and how strained are relations between the Cubans and Maduro now that the Maduro knows that his Cuban friends are running agents on him behind his back? What can relations between Maduro and Asamblea president Diosdado Cabello possibly be like after Silva’s allegations? Who leaked his conversation anyway, and is it an authentic recording?
Only the last question has a very approximate deductive answer: the recording was first played at a well-attended press conference on May 20 by an asambleista, a former Chavista, who gave no clue about its provenance. But the attempts to claim it was faked have been few and half-hearted; Mario Silva accused “zionism” of manufacturing the recording, then left for Cuba “for health reasons”; Cabello called the audio “gossip.” Silva’s program has been cancelled by the government, and after some delay the attorney general announced an investigation, not of the physical recording, but of the recording’s contents—thus seeming to confirm its authenticity.
Meanwhile, Mario Silva may be running for his life. “The man in the cross-hairs is me, because I know too much shit, Palacios. I know too much shit. They’ve got orders again to kill my sons…. We discovered two [would-be assailants, presumably], and boom, bam, we got them.” Silva goes on tell the Cuban agent that he has obtained five more fusiles (automatic weapons) from the defense minister, bringing his total to twelve. A certain amount of debate recently has revolved around what Silva meant by “we got them,” and why it is that the defense minister sends a television personality gifts of weapons.
In fact, much of Silva’s anguish in the leaked audio recording revolves around President Maduro’s disastrous relationship with the said defense minister, Admiral Alfredo Molero, whom he inherited from Chávez, and his nonexistent relationship with the military. Maduro has been refusing to see Defense Minister Molero, although it is also possible, Silva tells the Cuban agent, that Maduro’s own entourage could be keeping the president isolated. “It’s the same thing that happened with el Comandante. Sometimes they surrounded him…and Diosdado Cabello is very good at closing any possibility of talking with Molero.” There are other high-ranking officers who represent what Silva considers a more pure strain of Chavismo, who might be more comfortable with Maduro than Molero and could serve equally well as defense ministers, he speculates, but then he appears to change his mind. “Molero can’t leave the Ministry of Defense. He can’t. If Molero leaves, we’re fucked. Diosdado takes over.”
And what of the millions of Venezuelans who believed desperately in their comandante over the course of fourteen years, now that the actors in this grim play are busy trying to set each other on fire? Sustained by the income from a record hike in oil prices, Chavista universities, neighborhood organizations, women’s cooperatives, folk-dance associations, and local health clinics prospered under Chávez’s gaze. The poor were suddenly much less poor. In exchange, every time their leader called for a rally, they put on their chavista-red t-shirts and handkerchiefs and showed up by the thousands. They were asked to vote for a dying man and they did so. They were asked to vote for his hapless successor and they obeyed. Asked to believe that Chávez had visited Maduro after death in the form of a chirping bird—a tweet from the great beyond—they did not protest. Now they are being asked to keep the faith as their adored leader proves impossible to replace. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to promise that the missing half of Mario Silva’s song of woe will be played soon.