Are 'the Crazies' Under Maduro's Control?

It's a tale as old as time. Is Diosdado Cabello sabotaging Maduro or is he playing a key part in the Chavista strategy to wear down its rivals? Luis dives into the former

On January 24th, 2023, Chavismo’s second-in-command (as some folks call him), Diosdado Cabello, stood in front of the National Assembly and gave a speech about the dangers posed by the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) operating in the country. What Cabello said would’ve been familiar to anyone who’s been following his brand of politics since Chávez rose to the presidency: NGOs are “destabilization” tools, operating politically under foreign powers to weaken Venezuela. Cabello presented a draft law for consideration with the stated purpose of regulating NGOs in Venezuela, but with the real intention of dismantling any organization that the government feels as a threat.

It’s worth asking whether there is more to it than social control, and whether the timing has been carefully considered. Is there more going on than first appears?

There was a time when the word “Saudi” was used to describe Venezuela’s vast oil riches. Curiously, Nicolás Maduro has spent the last few years trying to turn Venezuela into South America’s Saudi Arabia, albeit in a different way than last time. What Maduro wants is for the United States to no longer consider Venezuela in political terms but strictly strategic and economic ones, turning the nation into an open dictatorship that avoids America’s wrath by being useful.

Diosdado Cabello is not Maduro. He represents something different, the PSUV’s past, the times of four-hour national television broadcasts full of direct threats against those who dared challenge the regime. This affects NGOs, in a context of this pauper petrostate where PSUV has been losing the social capital it once used to wield, and civil society has stepped in to fill that gap. Cabello represents the sectors of the government’s party who wish to see strict social control come back and perceives NGOs as a challenge to their authority, especially those that dedicate their efforts to defending human rights and exposing the regime’s horrific extrajudicial executions

The work these organizations carry out is crucial to ensuring that the PSUV’s regime is seen in clear light abroad and not through the lens of government-controlled propaganda. NGOs have provided the evidence of human rights abuses and antidemocratic practices that the United States has used to justify its imposition of economic sanctions on a series of Venezuelan government institutions and key figures like Maduro and Cabello. With their crimes hidden away, the government will just need time for things to cool down. Slowly, but surely, their vast and incredibly-well-funded propaganda machine will overtake the efforts of victims, and drown out the evidence of authoritarianism.

So, Cabello’s goals seem to be getting pesky NGOs out of their way en route to securing sanctions relief. But when the negotiations in Mexico made think that Maduro may be willing to grant some electoral concessions in order to get the US to lift the sanctions, and Biden administration envoys visited Miraflores Palace in Caracas to discuss deals involving Venezuelan oil, Cabello was most definitely not happy. He claimed that Chevron owed Venezuela money and that it would have to comply with the law. Maduro, on the other hand, said publicly that the licenses were steps “in the right direction, but not enough”.

Maduro’s been getting his way, the United States has shown its willingness to give him what he wants if he delivers, the political opposition has fallen apart all on its own, and elections are just a bit over a year away. Then along comes Cabello and torpedoes those efforts. 

Just last Friday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, visited Venezuela and met with civil society leaders and NGOs, who briefed him on the regime’s plans to shut them down. One university professor and member of a threatened NGO was detained after meeting Türk (and released hours after), and the same happened with the online editor of El Nacional, the newspaper Cabello himself harnessed to the point of taking over its building. Cabello isn’t stupid, he probably knows his actions are more likely to delay sanctions relief, but he may not care. Above all, he’s an authoritarian reactionary, desperate to keep himself in the limelight a little longer while wielding the cultural power he still has over the more radical sectors of Chavismo. 

While Cabello sabotages Maduro, a return to the days of a chokehold on civil society certainly makes it harder to push for sanctions relief. 

It’s a rare time when PSUV, which is really good at appearing to be united, is revealing in public its divisions. Shame there’s no one around to take advantage of it.