Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro seems on a constant quest to deflect attention from his country’s economic mess, its violent-crime crisis and the fact that he only narrowly won last month’s special election to succeed his demigod, Hugo Chávez, who died in March. As part of that effort, Maduro last week called for the creation of a “workers militia” to “defend the sovereignty of the homeland.” But while he’s girding for imperialist invasions, a new scandal suggests the biggest threat to Maduro’s government lies within the socialist, anti-U.S. Bolivarian revolution that Chávez left him to lead.
They’re calling it Silva-gate, after demagogue TV talk-show host Mario Silva. He’s Venezuela’s left-wing version of right-wing U.S. radio bully Rush Limbaugh. Early last week, the political opposition released what it said was a recording of Silva briefing a Cuban intelligence agent at a Caracas military base in late April. In it, Silva accuses Maduro’s rivals inside his United Socialist Party (PSUV) not only of corruption but also of scheming to oust him in a military coup. For good measure, Silva raises sexist concerns that Maduro’s wife, Attorney General Cilia Flores, is manipulating him. The recording lays bare the PSUV discord that began during Chávez’s long cancer illness and has gotten louder since Maduro’s surprisingly lame April 14 victory. (He defeated centrist candidate Henrique Capriles by 1.5 percentage points. Chávez beat Capriles last year by 11 points.)
In fact, according to transcripts of the recording published in the Venezuelan media, Silva says Maduro should take former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s advice and “get rid of these bourgeois elections … because [voters] make mistakes [and] here, with elections the way they are, we could be struck down. They could knock the revolution down.”
It’s not surprising to hear that from Silva, a radical Marxist who has not denied that it’s his voice on the tape. But it’s striking how he confirms what pundits have long speculated: First, that Cuba exercises inordinate influence in Venezuela. And more important, that the PSUV, or the Venezuelan socialist movement known as chavismo, which has ruled for 14 years, is split between a more ideological faction led by Maduro, whom Chávez anointed as his successor, and a more pragmatic one headed by National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, who has strong ties to business and the military and has been at least indirectly critical of Maduro’s performance. “The fierce chavista infighting and intrigues that [Silva] so explicitly lays out all sound plausible,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. “With Chávez gone, there’s no comparable figure who can hold it together.”
Throughout his conversation with the Cuban agent, Silva blasts Cabello’s penchant for power grabs and the lucrative spoils they yield in Venezuela, which possesses the world’s largest oil reserves. He raises concerns about Cabello diverting funds from various agencies handling hard currency and tax revenue, among other acts of malfeasance — and at one point he even calls high-level corruption inside the Venezuelan government “a sea of shit,” a stunning admission from the spokesman of a revolution that came to power condemning Venezuela’s venal oligarchy.
More alarming are Silva’s warnings that Cabello is turning the Venezuelan military against Maduro, and that a coup may already be in the planning stages. Cabello’s cabal, Silva tells the Cuban agent, wants to “take over the armed forces and force Maduro to act the way they want or they’ll stage a coup d’état.” Says Shifter: “We forget that the political polarization you see among Venezuelans in general is reproduced in all of its institutions, including the military.”
Cabello has refused to discuss the allegations publicly. But many Venezuelan analysts suggest that the Cuban government — which is depending on Maduro to continue Chávez’s policy of sending the communist island more than 100,000 barrels of cut-rate oil a day — may have intentionally leaked the recording in order to weaken Cabello, even if it meant embarrassing Maduro too.
And even if it meant sacrificing Silva, who has announced an indefinite leave from his controversial but popular political talk show, La Hojilla (The Razor Blade) for “health reasons.” That explanation, along with his assertion that his remarks on the recording had been doctored by the Mossad and the CIA, sounds about as truthful as most of the slanderous muck Silva has long spewed as the revolution’s Orwellian, anti-Semitic and homophobic tele-thug. In 2009, Silva attacked two student opposition leaders on one broadcast by noting they had Jewish-sounding last names — “So, right away you can see the problem,” he said — and who last year told viewers that in 2000 Capriles had been caught engaging in oral sex with another man in a car on a Caracas street. Silva held up a document on air that he claimed was a police report — but even the Caracas cops wouldn’t go along with the vicious smear and denied its authenticity.
As the recording makes clear, Silva deluded himself into thinking he was as powerful as the genuinely powerful figures he discusses with the Cuban agent. But like his comandante Chávez, who in the years before his death watched his once heady hemispheric influence fade away, Silva turned out to be far less important than he thought. It’s ironic that what might in the end be his last public broadcast — his briefing on the leaked recording — might actually be accurate journalism. Chávez’s regime could very well be unraveling from within, especially as the government’s economic ineptitude, from sky-high inflation to shortages of basic items like toilet paper and cooking oil, keeps nullifying the strides the revolution has made in reducing poverty. Whatever the case, the razor blade has been sheathed, and Venezuela is better off for it.