Dear Venezuelan Revolution: It's Not Just The Economy, Stupid. It's The Corruption.
Back in January, a Venezuelan security chief arrived in Washington, D.C. But he hadn’t come to rant at U.S. officials. He was there to sing to them. He had details about the allegedly epic ties between his country’s ruling socialist revolution and South American drug traffickers.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reportedly welcomed Army Lt. Commander Leamsy Salazar because he was delivering big fish – including the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, DiosdadoCabello, the nation’s No. 2 leader. According to Salazar, Cabello, himself a former army honcho, sits atop a military-run cocaine-trafficking organization in Venezuela known as el Cartel de los Soles, or Cartel of the Suns.
Cabello vehemently denies the accusation. And, true to the revolution’s authoritarian form, he’s pursuing defamation charges – criminal as well as civil – against any journalist and media outlet in Venezuela who’s dared report the U.S. is investigating him. He even got a Venezuelan judge this month to order 22 journalists not to leave the country while the case is pending.
One of them is Miguel HenriqueOtero, publisher of Venezuela’s leading independent newspaper, El Nacional. He was traveling out of Venezuela when the judge handed down that order – and he’s currently in Miami, trying to figure out his next move.
Otero did, however, experience some vindication this week when the Wall Street Journal published one of the most detailed reports yet on the U.S.’s narco-probe of Cabello and several other Venezuelan officials.
“It’s a confirmation of what we published” earlier this year, Otero told me. “The quantity of drugs that goes through Venezuela is such a huge amount that it has to be in complicity with government officials.”
If the Venezuelan informants are on the level, what probably repulses them more than the drug-trafficking crimes of government officials is the monumental hypocrisy.
According to a recent report in the Spanish daily ABC – which first broke the investigation story along with El Nuevo Herald in Miami – Salazar was moved to rat on Cabello by sheer disgust. As Cabello’s personal security guard, he allegedly witnessed Cabello and his lieutenants handling suitcase-size caches of drug cash.
And if Salazar is on the level, what probably repulsed him most wasn’t the crime itself but the monumental hypocrisy.
The central mission of the left-wing revolution the late Hugo Chávez brought to power 16 years ago was to clean up oil-rich Venezuela’s notorious corruption. That sleaze had turned the country into a “false democracy,” Chávez told me during his first presidential campaign, and it was hard to disagree with him.
But since then, Chávez’s movement hasn’t rejected corruption – it’s refined it. Even if the drug-trafficking allegations that Salazar and other defectors lay out aren’t true, there’s still enough blockbuster venality to keep the revolution rotting.
Take just the most recent case: International authorities say at least half a dozen former high-ranking Venezuelan officials tried to launder $2 billion – which they’d looted from the state-run oil monopoly, Petróleos de Venezuela – through a bank in the tiny Iberian country of Andorra.
Unfortunately that level of graft is the rule, not the exception.
Like gargantuan currency fraud. Under the government’s foolhardy exchange regime, sleazeballs right and left can obtain dollars at a ridiculously low official rate. But instead of using those dollars to import desperately needed consumer goods, they make a killing by selling the greenbacks for Venezuelan bolívares at a black-market exchange rate 50 times higher than the official exchange.
DIRTY DEJA VU
What’s truly mind-boggling is the déjà vu of it all. Two years ago I warned that today’s currency shenanigans were looking a lot like one of Venezuela’s most appalling pre-Chávez corruption scandals, the infamous Recadi case of the 1980s. Recadi involved the selling of cheap, government-exchange-rate dollars – $11 billion to be precise – on the black market for gazillions of bolívares in illicit profit.
It was the sort of outrage that helped get Chávez elected in 1998. And it’s the two-faced nature of Chávez’s revolution that’s surely weighing on the minds of witnesses like Leamsy Salazar now – especially considering the disaster that revolution has made of the economy in Venezuela, where inflation is South America’s highest and product shortages from rice to toilet paper are rampant.
Polls as a result show the socialists staring at ugly defeat in parliamentary elections later this year – and that would make current President Nicolás Maduro, whose approval rating sits well below 30 percent, more vulnerable to a constitutional recall referendum next year.
Problem is, the growing cacophony of crises is making the Maduro regime more defensive “and more repressive,” Otero of El Nacional told me. He points to the government’s jailing of opposition politicos and its worsening squeeze on independent Venezuelan media – not to mention his own legal situation – as evidence.
“We are trying to defend freedom of speech,” Otero said. “[But] we don’t have many weapons to fight against the absolute power that these people have.”
And, at least for now, no amount of singing by Venezuelan informants is likely to change that troubling tune.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.