Former Venezuelan Interior Minister Arrested: Fracturing the Bolivarian Movement

As the political and economic situation in Venezuela continues to intensify, the Maduro government arrested Miguel Rodriguez Torres, a well-known former interior minister. What is behind this and does it point to a fragmentation of the governing movement?

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Venezuelan authorities arrested Major General Miguel Rodriguez Torres last week, accusing him of fomenting unrest within the military. Rodriguez Torres was the head of Venezuela’s Secret Service under President Chavez and also spent some time as interior minister under President Maduro. The arrest has rattled critical Chavistas in Venezuela because Rodríguez Torres was generally seen as a staunch defender of the Bolivarian Revolution who has only recently begun to criticize Maduro’s management of the economy and of the political situation.

Joining me now to take a closer look at the arrest is Lucas Koerner. Lucas is staff writer for the website VenezuelAnalysis.com and is a masters student at Venezuela’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He joins us today from Caracas, Venezuela. Thanks so much for joining us, Lucas.

LUCAS KOERNER: Thanks for having me on.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Lucas, Miguel Rodriguez Torres spent time in jail with President Chavez for participating in a civic military coup against former President Carlos Andres Perez. He was in prison with Chavez. He served in Chavez’s administration and in Maduro’s administration. So what more can you tell us about him and this sudden departure with Maduro and the Chavismo?

LUCAS KOERNER: Yes, I mean, he has a long trajectory within the government, within Chavismo. I think that we have to see this current rift as something that’s been building over the past year, that he, as you mentioned, served after the death of Chavez as minister of justice and interior until he was dismissed following the controversial Quinta Crespo massacre, in which five members of revolutionary armed organizations in central Caracas were killed by the special investigative police under the command of Rodriguez Torres at that time, which generated a public outcry in which Rodriguez Torres defended the actions of the police, calling those who were killed criminals, and subsequently this led to, made the protests of of important figures on the left, led to the dismissal of Rodriguez Torres by Maduro. And he ceased to be directly part of the government and it did not occupy such a high profile position.

However, over the last year, over the last two years, he has become, as you mentioned, increasingly critical of the government. First, you know, really criticizing the government’s you know erroneous economic policies in numerous areas in his view, but also taking a much more strident political stance, particularly following the announcement of the National Constituent Assembly on May 1st of 2017 as basically President Maduro using his constitutional powers to convene this citizens assembly to redress Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution. And he came out and public opposed this move alongside the attorney general at that time, Luisa Ortega Diaz, and as of last year started his own political party, the Broad Defiance Movement.

However, it’s important to note that this movement has, both Rodrigues Torres and his movement have, along with Luisa Ortega in that respect, have moved closer to elements of the Venezuelan opposition, including a number of right wing parties that in August of 2017 he appeared at a conference alongside Julio Jorge is the former head of the national constituent assembly, as well as the former two time opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

And you know this particular, along with the attorney general, his new movement abroad, the Broad Defiance Movement, has joined the new coalition started by the right wing parties of the opposition called the Broad Front for a Free Venezuela, which includes, as I mentioned, All of these other parties of the Democratic Unity roundtable, as well as its important conservative civil society groups like the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, which participated in the 2002 coup, as well as certain student groups , the Catholic Church, evangelical churches, et cetera.

So yeah, absolutely. He is seen by many within the more critical segments of Chavismo as an alternative, as a critic of the government. But he’s also a very controversial figure for many on the left, including many on the left who are themselves critical of the government.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Lucas. So it’s one thing to oppose the Maduro government and the way in which he is conducting government business or handling the economy or the politics in the country. But it’s another thing to actually be coming from the left, being a Chavista government minister in the past appointed by Maduro and appointed by Chavez, and then joining the opposition. And what he’s being accused of here is somewhat amounting to treason. Do we know any more about his arrest and what he’s exactly accused of, and is there any evidence?

LUCAS KOERNER: According to Venezuela’s communications ministry, Rodriguez Torres is being accused of conspiracy against the constitution, as well as “threatening the monolithic unity of Venezuela’s armed forces.”

Now, there are no public charges have been formally presented against the former major general, but the major implication, at least from what communication minister Jorge Rodriguez has said, is that he had prior contacts with the CIA or maintained contacts with foreign intelligence outfits which, you know, Rodríguez Torres admits to. But he says that that he did this on the orders of Chavez, who saw it necessary to maintain open channels with these foreign intelligence agencies in the case of kind of a conflict or a breakdown of formal diplomatic relationships.

So there definitely, we have not seen any real hard evidence or any formal charges, so we have to wait until we see that evidence to really come to a conclusion regarding the legitimacy of the case against the former minister.

SHARMINI PERIES: And this contact with the CIA, which is perhaps the most contentious charges against him, and he argues that it was because President Chavez had asked him to. But he’s no longer serving President Chavez. Nor is he serving the Maduro government. So then do we know why he’s meeting with the CIA, and were those meetings recent?

LUCAS KOERNER: We have no, I have not seen any public evidence with regard to that. There was a a supposed document that was circulated by the government that claimed that he was an agent of the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency of the United States, that he was being paid, you know, a certain amount of money to pass sensitive intelligence to them. However, I have reviewed this document and the supposed English version of it. And I found that it contains certain spelling errors and certain language which is inconsistent with an official document from the United States government, so I don’t think that that’s a particularly strong case against him in any way.

SHARMINI PERIES: Lucas, it’s one thing to critique the government in power, and many people have critiqued Maduro for the way in which he has handled the economy and the politics in Venezuela. But it’s another thing to join the opposition. It’s another thing to appear with the opposition. And there has been the falling outs with Maduro, for example. We have heard Rafael Ramirez, The former oil minister in Venezuela, who recently resigned. And he was appointed, I believe, To the United Nations as the ambassador there when he resigned. So controversies aren’t out of the ordinary. There’s been other people who left the Maduro government.

But I think in terms of Miguel Rodriguez Torres, particularly given that he was former intelligence and that he’s also accused of plotting a coup, perhaps, against Maduro so there might be some legitimate reasons for what Maduro did here, put this in context for us.

LUCAS KOERNER: Absolutely. I think we need to view the arrest of Miguel Rodriguez Torres within the broader context of the crisis of hegemony within the Venezuelan state since the death of Chavez. Chavez was this larger than life figure who alone was capable of uniting the multiplicity of different warring factions and interest groups that, you know, comprised Chavismo as a bloc, and particularly the ruling Socialist Party, and the government in general. And most recently we saw you know Rafael Ramirez, a former oil minister, who is now under investigation for corruption, and he publicly broke with the government in December and called for challenging Maduro in presidential primaries.

Likewise, Luisa Ortega, you know, broke with the government over the national constituent assembly, and ultimately herself came under investigation for corruption. And now Rodriguez Torres. And the clear issue with all these cases is that there is definitely, on the one hand, the government, all of these figures have or have had presidential ambitions in one way or another, explicitly in the case of Ramirez and Rodriguez Torres, who himself has been on presidential campaign for at least a year, if not two years. Ortega, definitely there was a lot of speculation that she would know run for president in some way or another.

So there definitely is , the government looks to these figures definitely as a direct challenge to Maduro who is recognized by the bulk of Chavismo as the leader of the Bolivarian process for now and for the next six years, including the left, the critical elements of the left within Venezuela, the Communist Party, the homeland for all parties have signed agreements with the [passu]. You know, specifying very important revolutionary conditions for backing Maduro. And they have backed Maduro. There has not been a rupture between the left and Maduro yet.

Many of these figures like Luisa Ortega and now Rodriguez Torres have openly broken with the government. And you know, definitely there’s a question of the political challenge to Maduro and the Bolivarian process. And then there’s the other question of, well, are these people really guilty of what they’re being accused of? In the case of Rodriguez Torres, is he guilty of conspiracy? That remains to be seen.

In the case of Rafael Ramirez there definitely was immense corruption of PDVSA, we don’t know if he was necessarily responsible for it. But that’s clearly, you know, to document these things have been denounced by the left. In the case of Ortega, Luisa Ortega, you know, there’s been, people have been denouncing many of these figures on the left for a long time for a whole range of activities, including Rodriguez Torres, and this should be kind of taken in in our understanding of this figure.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Lucas, Venezuela continues to be an unraveling, tumultuous situation. I thank you so much for joining us, and I’m sure we’ll be back to you very soon, but thanks for joining us today.

LUCAS KOERNER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.