Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Chávez’s Favorite Hero Resurfaces to Rescue Trump

Leamsy Salazar came from glorified soldier in 2002 to famous defector in 2015. Now, he’s the star of a conspiracy theory to discredit the U.S. election where Trump’s legal team already suffered their first casualty

Back in 2015, we marveled at the news that one of Hugo Chávez’s most trusted men had defected from Venezuela and, apparently, was to collaborate with U.S. authorities on a massive case to bring down a drug trafficking operation led by Diosdado Cabello.

Captain Leamsy Salazar was the epitome of the All-Venezuelan hero. In April 2002, during the events that briefly ousted Chávez, Salazar was one of the few marines who held a stand atop the Palacio Blanco, the building that houses the Presidential Honor Guard, right across the street from Miraflores Palace. After this, Salazar took charge of Chávez’s security detail and became his personal assistant.

Here’s a clip of Chávez praising Salazar after the 2002 coup:

His likeness, during the April 11th stand, became part of the vast iconography of chavismo. An image which, according to chavista mythology, would be comparable to the raising of the flag in Iwo Jima. After Chávez’s death, Salazar went to work with Diosdado Cabello, a post he held until the day of his defection in 2015.

There was little information on what Salazar’s role would be in bringing down chavismo, but the prospect of such a close Chávez/Cabello collaborator working with the Department of State and the DEA was nothing but good news. Back then, Spanish newspaper ABC published a story linking Salazar to evidence of Diosdado Cabello’s involvement with the Cartel of the Suns, the alleged drug cartel. This story was taken with a massive grain of salt because it was too good to be true, as it tied several Venezuelan conspiracy theories together with all the bad guys, and—I’m quoting myself here—it “delivered few hard facts”. 

As many Venezuelan informants did, eventually Salazar disappeared from the headlines. He became an afterthought, and his story a piece of trivia only to be spat out after four or five rums at foreign correspondent parties in Caracas. I personally always hoped that one day we would hear from him again, in a context where the intelligence he provided would’ve been key to bringing down chavismo. Not because I believed everything that was published by ABC, but because of the literary value I saw in his story. 

See, Salazar’s profile is different from other chavista defectors. There was nothing in his public file that would tell you that this guy was corrupt, and even when there could be an argument to say all chavistas are scumbags, I saw some value in the fact that he was incredibly loyal to the Comandante and that he couldn’t stomach working for Cabello. The last time I saw a mention of him was on Twitter, when someone posted a screenshot of an Uber ride with his photo and name, swearing that the former presidential guardsman, like many Venezuelans, was an Uber driver to survive in the U.S. Just one more story to feed Venezuelan urban legends.

From Oblivion to Absurdity

But sometimes reality beats urban legends. If for U.S. analysts this was an absurd and idiotic episode, imagine being a Venezuelan journalist, watching Rudolph Giuliani, looking like a Tolkienesque character, dripping black goo from his hairline, Jenna Ellis, and Sidney Powell tying a plethora of Venezuela stories into a mashup that would fit nicely both into a chavista wet dream and a lunatic American conspiracy theory. It would be funny if it didn’t feel criminal.

But I was especially flabbergasted when reading the affidavit posted by AP’s Joshua Goodman on Twitter, and presented by Trump’s legal team as one of the main elements of proof that there was a connection between Trump’s claim of fraud and the electronic voting system imposed by Chávez in Venezuela, as explained by a former presidential guardsman who was very close to Chávez and Cabello. The return of Leamsy Salazar.

It’s an insult to anyone who has been watching Venezuela closely all these years, but what is worse, it’s an insult to the Venezuelans who have been suffering the hardships of the chavista dictatorship.

Also, imagine the surprise of the Venezuela-watching community, when the key witness of a drug trafficking case which is supposed to tie a broader case against Venezuela—that the country is being run by a cartel of drug-trafficking generals—the reason for calling the Maduro dictatorship a narco-regime, pop up as the key witness of one of Donald Trump’s challenges in this year’s presidential elections. Just the mere mention of “Smartmatic” during the press conference should have rung loudly to anyone trying to untangle the mess of Venezuela for the world. 

It took years to explain that Venezuelan electoral fraud was not based on electronic intervention, but in a violent form of gerrymandering, voter suppression by intimidation, and in the use of public funds and assets for campaigning. As we know, both in Venezuela and in the United States, using the resources of the state for personal gain is an outright act of corruption. We learned this the hard way. Today, we know that the Smartmatic electronic voting system wasn’t used to alter results. In fact, the company cut ties with the government in 2018 when they published results different from those tallied by the system. It was easy to audit. Their contractual ethics are another discussion.

Thanks for Nothing, Donald

But whether Smartmatic was ethically sound (or not) isn’t the issue here. It was insane to bring it into this debate and to try to connect it to the fraud allegations and it was quickly dismantled, just as all the meritless legal challenges have been bouncing from different courts all over the United States. 

And, of course, the Giuliani-led legal team distanced itself from Sidney Powell by saying that she was acting on her own personal account. And they did this because it was all bullshit and they were caught. In Thursday’s infamous press conference, Giuliani had introduced Powell as part of Trump’s legal team.

But the problem here isn’t what this means for the U.S. elections and current relations with Venezuela—chavismo must be enjoying this idiotic episode even more than the botched Operation Gedeón. The problem is the disservice they are doing to the Venezuelan cause. By using a key witness of an international drug trafficking case that’s connected to a humanitarian crisis and one of the largest corruption rings in the world, Donald Trump, Rudolph Giuliani, and the Republican party are pissing all over the work done by U.S. intelligence, the international intel community, the DEA, U.S. prosecutors and courts, countless NGOs, hundreds of investigative journalists all over the world, and… us. Yeah, Donald Trump is screwing us too. It’s an insult to anyone who has been watching Venezuela closely all these years, but what is worse, it’s an insult to the Venezuelans who have been suffering the hardships of the chavista dictatorship.

This is the last nail on the coffin of the discussion on whether Venezuela was more than an electoral gamble to the Trump administration or if there was real political will and good faith behind their actions.

What does this mean for the larger case that the U.S. has been building all of these years against Venezuela? How does this hurt Salazar’s own testimony for other cases, especially when in this one there were clear contradictions? Hundreds of testimonies and thousands of documents in many cases against the chavista regime could now be subject to higher scrutiny because of this childish political ruse.

Hell of a goodbye present from the protector of Venezuelan democracy. We always thought the white whale that would be revealed by Leamsy would be Diosdado Cabello, not Donald Trump.