The Weight of a Crook

Here's an extract of our analysis in Friday's Political Risk Report. What kind of leverage can the opposition get from the information that Alex Saab, Hugo Carvajal, and Rafael Ramírez have?

It will be interesting to see how Venezuelan politics and the negotiation in Mexico will be impacted by the four cases of former high-ranking chavistas dealing with courts in other countries. Three of them—Clíver Alcalá, Hugo Carvajal, and Rafael Ramírez—have in common that they held prominent positions in the Chávez administration, then fell from grace once Maduro arrived in Miraflores, and were living as exiles or fugitives. The fourth member of this curious quartet, Alex Saab, was enjoying considerable influence and protection in Venezuela under Maduro—after escaping his native Colombia hours before they moved to arrest him. While he formally wasn’t a member of the public administration—the government had previously denied they had anything to do with him—and was kept away from public view, Saab is now in trouble for naively underestimating the reach of a superpower.

Major General Clíver Alcalá turned himself in to Colombian authorities and was handed over to the DEA in March 2020, accused of collaborating with FARC to move drugs to the U.S. Last week, Reuters reported Alcalá was negotiating to plead guilty before a trial, in a case that involves Maduro and his entourage. Alcalá, once a favorite Chávez pretorian, was involved in the absurd Operation Gedeón to depose Maduro. If, as a part of a deal, he delivers valuable information about drug trafficking in the Maduro regime, he would increase American leverage against Maduro and the Venezuelan military. 

The same can be said about Hugo Carvajal, Chávez’s all-powerful intelligence chief, who was detained this month when his hideout was discovered in Madrid. Carvajal is hoping to use the information he reportedly has about past and present criminal activities of Maduro, Diosdado Cabello, and other chavista leaders. His lawyers have so far succeeded in avoiding his extradition to the U.S., although last Monday the Spanish Supreme Court blocked an attempt to suspend the extradition order that would leave Carvajal in the hands of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Other ex chavista heavyweights are fighting extradition to Venezuela. Former Oil minister and PDVSA president Rafael Ramírez has so far been able to avoid the fate suffered by other disgraced leaders like Raúl Baduel and Miguel Rodríguez Torres. Ramírez has been rallying around himself the dispersed ranks of the old-guard chavistas at odds with Maduro, with little to show for it.

While it’s clear that they hold information that the regime doesn’t want out, their collaboration is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the government. Most likely, they’ll help Spain and the U.S. build new legal cases and strengthen ongoing ones against chavista figures, and shed light on hidden assets and money laundering structures, which someone like Saab, “Maduro’s frontman,” knows all too well. However, there’s been plenty of time to move these assets around and the sole exposure of the scheme is incomparable to the actual threat of affecting assets.

The other piece of intelligence, and the one that could actually provide some new leverage for the U.S., is information involving the schemes to avoid sanctions with the regime’s international partners. What does Saab know about the deals with Iran, Turkey, China, and Russia? A lot, we believe, especially since he was on his way to Iran to close another gold-for-gasoline deal when he stopped for jet fuel at the wrong airport. 

For all the worries the government may have about stopping these men from falling in the hands of the U.S., we believe it won’t translate into a significant advantage against chavismo at the negotiation table,  if and when it happens. And our original assessment still stands: it would be great for the government to keep some of the stories out of the public light, and it would be great for them to have legitimacy, control over foreign assets, and sanctions relief. Great to have, but not indispensable. As our full Political Risk Report shows, chavismo is still controlling the main variables of the political game and is still able to easily stimulate dissent within the opposition.

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