What’s Really Behind the WSJ’s Narco Exposé on Diosdado Cabello

En apariencia cercanos, se desconoce la verdadera relación entre Cabello y Maduro (Notihoy)
The true extent of the power struggle between President Maduro and Diosdado Cabello remains a mystery. (Notihoy)

EspañolLast week, the Wall Street Journal surprised everyone with a story reporting that US prosecutors are investigating none other than the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. WSJ reporter Juan Forero claims the South American nation has become a global hub for the illicit drug trade.

The allegations are nothing new, though. For years, Washington has placed Venezuelan officials on its Specially Designated Nationals List, also known as the Clinton list. But this is the first time the links between the senior ranks of Chavismo and drug-trafficking have been featured in influential international outlets such as the WSJ and Spain’s ABC.

This story is particularly interesting because it’s not the usual tubazo, as Venezuelan journalists call an explosive scoop. It’s too much of a coincidence that it broke out when the Venezuelan economy is at its worst shape ever and just months shy of this year’s legislative elections, with the opposition leading in voting intention polls.

There won’t be legal repercussions for now. No extradition requests, still less US special forces, will suddenly arrive in Venezuela and carry off its kingpins, as with Panama’s Manuel Noriega. That’s not going to happen.

We shouldn’t expect a negative effect in the polls. Venezuela’s economic crisis already has that covered. What, then, are the foreseeable consequences?

It’s likely that the DEA and senior US officials, if not the White House itself, authorized prosecutors to reveal to the WSJ and ABC journalists that investigations are ongoing into Cabello and other members of Venezuela’s ruling clique.

As such, the article seems like what in game theory is known as a threat. Depending on its credibility, its goal is to elicit a response from those who feel threatened.

So its effects hinge on the following question: who was the threat directed at? The first option is Cabello himself, and the message seems to be “give up and make a deal, you’re cornered.” But I don’t think that’s the case, as even the story accepts. The number-two Chavista after President Nicolás Maduro is extremely unlikely to turn himself in, and will prefer to go down fighting.

The second best guess is that the story is aimed at his allies in the government: “Give us Cabello and we’ll sit down to negotiate.”

Given Venezuela’s economic downturn, the profits from drug trafficking have gotten smaller for everyone, and the investigation suggests the belt-tightening in the narcotics trade will only continue. Cabello’s allies and rivals may decide to hand him over to bolster their own dwindling resources and prestige.

Such a decision would mean more than the recent DEA-sponsored defection of figures like Rafael Isea and Leamsy Salazar. If part of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) coalition abandons Cabello, this would weaken the Maduro administration, and consolidate the Venezuelan opposition’s chances of taking the National Assembly in the upcoming elections. This, in turn, could lead to the passage of a national referendum to impeach Maduro.

However, as I have warned before, this course of action (and political stability) will be impossible if the opposition refuses to negotiate with at least one faction of the Chavistas. I’ve also mentioned elsewhere that the support of a strong and credible actor like the DEA or the US State Department is what gives the opposition a better footing against other powerful mafias within the ruling coalition.

But the Maduro administration and Cabello are not going down without a fight. What could Cabello’s response be? Take power? Negotiate with Maduro? Will Maduro turn in Diosdado?

All these answers depend on how much pressure the United States can exert and how well the Venezuelan opposition’s negotiation skills turn out to be. Much information is still needed to understand this game and its possible ramifications. For now, we’ll at least get a partial answer on election day for the National Assembly.

Translated by Daniel Duarte.

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