Pubdate: Mon, 25 May 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Jackson Diehl


Venezuela is afflicted with the world's highest inflation, its second 
highest murder rate and crippling shortages of food, medicine and 
basic consumer goods.

Its authoritarian government is holding some 70 political prisoners, 
including the mayor of Caracas and senior opposition leader Leopoldo 
Lopez, and stands accused by human rights groups of illegal 
detentions, torture and repression of independent media.

All of that is now pretty well known, and it is finally beginning to 
gain some attention from Latin American leaders who for years did 
their best to appease or ignore Hugo Chavez and his "Bolivarian 
Revolution." What's less understood is the complicating factor that 
will make any political change or economic reconstruction in this 
failing state far more difficult: The Chavez regime, headed since his 
demise by Nicolas Maduro, harbors not just a clique of crackpot 
socialists, but also one of the world's biggest drug cartels.

Ever since Colombian commandos captured the laptop of a leader of the 
FARC organization eight years ago, it's been known that Chavez gave 
the Colombian narco-guerrillas sanctuary and allowed them to traffic 
cocaine from Venezuela to the United States with the help of the 
Venezuelan army. But not until a former Chavez bodyguard defected to 
the United States in January did the scale of what is called the 
"Cartel of the Suns" start to become publicly known.

According to multiple news accounts, Leamsy Salazar has been 
cooperating with U.S. federal prosecutors who are developing criminal 
cases against a host of senior Venezuelan generals and government 
officials. Chief among them is the man Salazar began guarding after 
Chavez's death: Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National 
Assembly and the second most powerful member of the regime afterM aduro.

The day after Salazar's arrival in Washington, Spain's ABC newspaper 
published a detailed account of the emerging case against Cabello, 
and last month, ABC reporter Emili Blasco followed up with a book 
laying out the allegations of Salazar and other defectors, who say 
Cuba's communist regime and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah have been 
cut in on the trafficking. That was followed by a lengthy report last 
week in the Wall Street Journal that said Cabello's cartel had turned 
Venezuela into "a global hub for cocaine trafficking and money laundering."

Cabello has responded with the regime's most familiar tactic: an 
assault on the press.

Last month he brought defamation suits against 22 journalists from 
three Venezuelan news organizations that published accounts of 
Blasco's reporting, including El Nacional, the one remaining 
independent national newspaper.

In early May, a judge imposed the penalty Cabello sought without 
bothering to hold a trial; the regime long ago captured the judiciary.

The journalists were banned from leaving the country and ordered to 
appear for weekly court check-ins.

The order came down as El Nacional's publisher, Miguel Henrique 
Otero, was traveling abroad.

Last week he flew to Washington to seek support from the Organization 
of American States. The regime, he told me, is desperate to deflect 
the drug trafficking allegations, which could destroy what remains of 
its international credibility. While leftists in Latin America and 
the United States have been willing to overlook assaults on the 
opposition and media, "nobody wants to associate with drug 
traffickers," Otero said.

"This is a very serious blow to the regime," Otero said. "Their only 
way of combatting it is to claim it is a right-wing conspiracy 
directed in Miami and Madrid, and to say that the press that report 
the charges are part of it."

It's not clear whether or when U.S. prosectors will bring charges 
against Cabello and his associates, but arrests look unlikely.

A U.S. attempt to capture one senior general, former military 
intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal, in Aruba last year failed.

But the leaking of the cartel case and any charges, if made public, 
could divide as well as isolate the regime.

Cabello leads one of three "families" that Otero says are battling 
for Chavez's legacy; the others are headed by Maduro and by Chavez's daughter.

Only Cabello is linked to the cocaine shipments, and there are 
drug-free elements in the military leadership.

Like many opposition leaders, Otero is hopeful that Venezuela can 
resolve its crisis through democracy.

If an election for the National Assembly due this year is held and is 
fair, the opposition should win handily. But Maduro's term extends to 
2019 - and those in the regime tied to drug trafficking, and 
vulnerable to U.S. prosecution, will not willingly surrender power.

Could rival elements of the regime or military move against them? 
Says Otero: "The situation is so dramatic and so catastrophic that 
the probability of some kind of event occurring is high."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom