Maduro’s Venezuela
Peter Ludlow

Over the last few weeks I’ve been surprised and puzzled by some of the social media posts about the situation in Venezuela. People that I ordinarily take to be intelligent have been filling my newsfeed with posts suggesting that somehow Maduro is very popular with the Venezuelan people. What really puzzled me, though, were posts that suggested that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a sell-out because she refused to support Maduro and wanted to not take sides.

My view is that AOC is right here: We should not take sides. While I argue below that Maduro’s presidency is illegitimate, that he is corrupt, and that he is deeply unpopular with the Venezuelan people, that doesn’t mean the United States or Western powers should be involved. Given its history in the Americas, I don’t see that the US has any moral standing to get involved. But that doesn’t mean people should be supporting or cheering on Maduro. The man is an inept, corrupt, two-bit despot. Can I back that up? Hold my beer.

Now, as people correctly point out, Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. So, a lot of these recent events perhaps ARE being driven by US and other Western corporate interests. There is no denying that. But it does not follow that we should support Maduro. To the contrary, the socialist left should have pulled the plug on him long ago. Unfortunately, socialism clings to its failed leaders well past their expiration date. I have no idea why, but it is forever killing the brand.

Let’s start with the political end of this. People I respect, like John Pilger, have been claiming that Maduro was legitimately elected with 67.84% of the election, that no one disputed the election, etc etc. This is an astoundingly careless telling of the situation. But on the other hand, a careful telling of the story will take some time. Bear with me here.

Let’s go back to 2013, when President Hugo Chavez appointed Maduro Vice President. When Chavez died, Maduro became acting president until elections in April of 2013. When the election was held, Maduro won by a razor thin margin (50.6 to 49.1). The opposition charged that there had been irregularities in the ballet counting and they appealed to the electoral oversight committee, which turned down the petition. So far there is nothing unusual about this. We’ve seen it here in the United States in the form of Bush vs. Gore, wherein Gore asked for and was refused a recount by a Republican-controlled court. Such is politics, for better or worse.

Fast forward: On Dec. 6, 2015 parliamentary elections were held and the opposition blew out the Maduristas, winning 56% of the vote and 2/3 of the seats in parliament. The electoral oversight committee found no irregularities and Maduro did not protest the outcome. However, this is when things started to get shady. Sixteen days after the election the lame duck Maduro-controlled Congress appointed 13 new judges to the supreme court. Some of the outgoing congresspersons were among the appointees. Shady, yes. Illegal? I’ll get to that.

One of the Maduristas appointed to the Supreme court subsequently voided a number of the congressional elections in Amazonia, causing the opposition in congress to lose its 2/3 veto override ability.

On January 6, 2016, 112 opposition members were sworn in to parliament, including three members from Amazonia who had had their elections disputed by a member of the Supreme Court.

You might be thinking, well, fine, the Court will simply reject the seating of those three members. But the Court, which, you may recall, was packed in 2015 by the lame duck Maduro Congress, voided the entire Congress. They didn’t just dispute the three seats. They claimed the entire just-elected parliament was illegitimate. Now they were in full blown constitutional crisis. And we will come back to the question of whether or not the recently elected Congress was legitimate or not, because it will figure again in this saga.

According to Venezuelan law, it is possible to call a recall election halfway into a presidential term. A petition was organized in April of 2016. By law, they needed 300,000 signatures, but they collected 1.2 million. Unfortunately for the opposition, some 10,000 of those were deemed suspicious, so the electoral oversight committee cancelled the recall, to the chagrin of the opposition, which was pretty confident after the previous election that they could get rid of Maduro.

So, the opposition went into action. First, the opposition Congress annulled the appointment of those 13 judges that had been appointed to the Supreme Court back in December, before the new (opposition) Congress had been seated. Then, the opposition leader and co-founder of the Justice First political party, Julio Borges, announced that to make the Court happy, Congress would annul the appointment of the three contested opposition congresspersons from Amazonia. The theory was, I’m sure, that this would satisfy the Supreme Court, which had found the Congress in contempt on the grounds of those contested congressional seats. But surprise! The Supreme Court decided that Congress was still in contempt and was not legitimate. Why? As far as I can tell it was a procedural issue. In any case, as you can see the plot was starting to thicken.

At this point, a court that had possibly been illegitimately stacked by the outgoing Congress declared that the recently elected congress was illegitimate (that is, the Congress elected by a majority of 56% of the vote and in which by some accounts the opposition should have held more than 2/3 of the seats). Did the Court have the power to do that? And did THAT particular court have the right to do it given that it had been stacked by the previous lame duck Congress? That question will become important as we get a little further into this story.

Now of course, assuming that the legislature had been declared illegitimate, it raises a question: Who does the legislating? It is as though Trump and the Supreme Court had dissolved Congress; who then writes the laws? The decision made by the Court in Ruling 155 was to grant legislative powers to Maduro! Pretty radical, huh? It is as though Congress was eliminated and then the Supreme Court declared that the legislative business of government was to be taken over by Trump. And indeed, the Court did think twice about this, clarifying that legislation would be undertaken by Maduro AND the Court.

You might be thinking that this sort of stuff was running roughshod over the Venezuelan constitution, and well, I’m no scholar of Venezuelan Constitutional law, but yeah. I feel you. I think that deep down Maduro and the Court must have felt this way, because Maduro’s next step was to call a constitutional convention, or as it’s known in Venezuela, a Constituent Assembly. Can he do that? Well, um…

Calling for a Constituent Assembly is not unheard of in Venezuela, and indeed Hugo Chavez had done it in 1998. But in doing so he first held a referendum to see if the people agreed that there should be a Constituent Assembly. Why? Because of article 347 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which says this: “The original constituent power rests with the people of Venezuela. This power may be exercised by calling a National Constituent Assembly for the purpose of transforming the State, creating a new juridical order and drawing up a new Constitution.” What Hugo Chavez took this to mean is that the people had to authorize the Assembly, hence a referendum was first required. Maduro had no time for such niceties. He called the Assembly directly, skipping by some accounts between 70 and 100 required procedural steps.

Now you might be wondering, how can he do that? What empowers Maduro to call a Constituent Assembly? Cue the Supreme Court, which, remember, had been stacked with Maduristas before the new Congress was seated, and had disbanded the newly elected Congress and declared Maduro and itself (the Court) to be the extant legislators of Venezuela. On June 7, 2017 the Maduro Supreme Court issued Judgment 378 which held that Maduro ipso facto WAS the people. So that settles that!

Now the plot REALLY thickens: the Attorney General of Venezuela, one Luisa Ortega Díaz, rejected this power grab and invoked article 333 of the Venezuelan Constitution, from a section of the Constitution aptly called “Title VIII: Protection of the Constitution Clause.” It reads like this:

Article 333: This Constitution shall not cease to be in effect if it ceases to be observed due to acts of force or because or repeal in any manner other than as provided for herein.

In such eventuality, every citizen, whether or not vested with official authority, has a duty to assist in bringing it back into actual effect.

Who was Luisa Ortega Díaz? Obviously some opposition crony, right? Well, no actually. She had originally been appointed to a six-year term as Venezuela’s Attorney General (Prosecutor General) in 2008, and was reappointed in 2014. She had been considered not merely a Chavez loyalist, but a Maduro loyalist as well – at least up until that point. In her view, the power grab by the Supreme Court and Maduro was a betrayal of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution. She issued a statement saying it was her “unavoidable historical duty” to denounce the power grab and “rupture” of the Constitutional order.

But back to Article 333. Ortega took it seriously, especially the part about every citizen assisting in bringing the Constitution back into effect. Thus, she called for the people to march to the Court when she submitted her petition. Maduro responded by ordering the state security forces to close the Supreme Court. Political theater? You decide. In any case the petition was not entertained. The Constitution was effectively suspended on the order of one man.

The Maduro Government and his Court responded quickly. On June 29th they issued an order freezing all of Ortega’s assets and barring her from leaving the country on the grounds of her “serious misconduct.”

Ortega, not one to take matters lying down, was not finished. On July 2 she challenged the authenticity of the socialist judges appointed after the election, noting that the prescribed evaluative procedures had not been undertaken. As she noted, article 74 of the Organic Law of the Supreme Court required that any such appointment be reviewed by a committee that included the Attorney General. Which was her. She noted that she was in a position to know that this had not happened. Team Maduro responded by producing a document in which Ortega Diaz had allegedly signed off on the appointments. She claimed it was a forgery.

The plot thickens even more. Declared by the Maduro Supreme Court as being the will of “the people,” which is to say Maduro (who embodies the people), an election was convened to elect members of the Constituent Assembly. One teeny tiny wrinkle was added to this election: Three of the top four opposition parties – the Justice First, Democratic Action, and Popular Will parties (all three are social democratic parties) – were not allowed to participate on the grounds that they had boycotted a previous mayoral election. It is as though Trump called a snap congressional election and decided that the Democrats, the Libertarians, and the Greens could not be candidates.

Anyway, you would THINK that would be enough to secure the election for Team Maduro, but the voting machine company – Smartmatic – felt the need to issue a statement saying there had been irregularities. Mind you, they had been supplying voting machines for Venezuelan national elections since 2004, and had endorsed the fairness of the results in the previous elections in which Chavez had been elected, and even the disputed razor thin victory by Maduro in 2013. But this time they called foul.

“Smartmatic has provided election technology and support services in Venezuela since 2004. Even in moments of deep political conflict and division we have been satisfied that the voting process and the count has been completely accurate. It is, therefore, with the deepest regret that we have to report that the turnout figures on Sunday, 30 July, for the Constituent Assembly in Venezuela were tampered with.”

They estimated that “the difference between the actual participation and the one announced by authorities is at least one million votes.” So there was that too.

Earlier I compared the Constituent Assembly to a Constitutional Convention in the United States, but the powers of the Constituent Assembly are actually much broader than that. They can make proclamations about education, or pretty much anything they want. And thus, one of their first acts upon being convened was to get payback on Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz. She had already had her assets frozen, but one week after the Constituent Assembly was formed, she was removed from office and another attorney general was appointed. Then, on August 16, the new prosecutor charged Ortega and her husband, German Ferrer (a left-wing lawyer) with running an extortion ring and ordered her arrest. Things quickly turned into a Netflix mini-series, with Ortega escaping from her office on a motorcycle, and then by high speed boat to Aruba, and then flying to Colombia where she was granted asylum.

On July 21, while all of the above was going on, the opposition parliament, which may or may not have been legally dissolved by a court that may or may not have been legally appointed, decided that they were in fact the legitimate legislative body of Venezuela, and, noting that the Team Maduro Court had not been properly appointed (a determination made by the then standing Chavez-appointed Attorney General of Venezuela), they appointed their own Supreme Court judges, carefully following the procedures set down by Venezuelan law.

This might be a good time to pause and see where we are. At this point, there are two legislative bodies – the Team Maduro Constituent Assembly, which was put in place after an election that may or may not have been constitutionally called and which in any case did not allow leading opposition parties to participate and the integrity of which was otherwise disputed by the voting machine company, and (on the other hand) the Team Opposition Congress, which had in fact been legally elected in an undisputed election, but then dissolved by … by a Court. Which leads me to the other thing: there are also two Supreme Courts. One, the Team Maduro Court, was appointed by a lame duck congress in a matter declared procedurally flawed by the Maduro appointed and then reappointed Attorney General (now in exile), and on the other hand the Team Opposition Court, which was appointed by the Congress that was elected in the election of 2015, following established procedures. So, summing up, there are two legislatures (Team Maduro Legislature and Team Opposition Legislature) and two courts (same two teams). I think I forgot to mention that Maduro began to jail the opposition court judges, but most of them escaped and are now operating in exile (as is the aforementioned opposition leader Borges). I should be add that the Team Opposition Court and Legislature, whether the legitimate court and legislature of Venezuela or not, are operating in exile. Don’t worry, I’m coming back to this.

Meanwhile, back in Venezuela, the Maduro Constituent Assembly decided that presidential elections would not be held at the end of the year as regularly scheduled presidential elections were to be held six months in advance – in May instead of at the end of the year. Because of this and other procedural irregularities the key opposition parties objected, to no avail. Presidential elections were held in May.

Here I just cannot get how John Pilger goes off the rails so hard. Even ignoring the circumstances under which it was called, it was in no way shape or form a democratic election. In the first place, the key political parties were AGAIN not allowed to participate in the election. In addition, the unity coalition of opposition parties — Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) – was banned. And just to put a cherry on top of all of it, key opposition leaders were also declared ineligible or arrested or sent into exile.

So, for example, Henrique Capriles, who co-founded the Justice First party, had been banned from running for office for 15 years. Interestingly, it was Capriles who barely lost to Maduro in the election of 2013. Another potential candidate, former mayor of Chacao Leopoldo Lopez, had been jailed for his leadership role in the 2014 protests against Maduro. Interestingly and perhaps ironically, it had been the aforementioned Attorney General Luisa Ortega who had gone after him for “fomenting violence and terrorism.” Once in exile Ortega claimed that she was forced to present false evidence against Lopez; she apologized to him, and admitted that there was not one piece of evidence against Lopez.

Then there was Antonio Ledezma, former mayor of Caracas, who had been a member of the Democratic Action party before starting a new party. He was placed under house arrest and then escaped across the Colombian border before flying to Spain where he continues to operate in exile. And Freddy Guevara, who is a leader of the Popular Will party and was a leader in the 2017 anti-Maduro protests. On November 5, 2017 he fled to the Chilean embassy in Venezuela, where he remains to this day. Or how about Ramon Muchacho, who was mayor of Chacao and a member of the Justice First party, and fled to Miami after being sentenced to 15 months in jail. His crime?: Failing to suppress anti-Maduro demonstrations in his city. Or David Smolansky, a former student leader and member of the Popular Will party, who was also sentenced to 15 months in jail, and who escaped over the Brazilian border. Or Maria Corina Machado, who had been a popular candidate in previous elections, was not only banned from running for President (she had done so previously) but was removed from congress for giving a talk at the Organization of American States in 2014, on the grounds that her appearance there was “unconstitutional.”

Finally, I give you Miguel Rodríguez Torres, a dedicated Chavista who was with Hugo Chavez from the initial 1992 coup attempt and dutifully served as the Director of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service from 2002 until 2013. He was then moved into service as “Minister of the Popular Power for Interior, Justice and Peace,” where he is perhaps best known for his violent crackdowns (including murders) of the protestors in the 2014 demonstrations. He was removed from office in late 2014, not because of those events, but because of his violent crackdowns on “collectivos,” which are Venezuelan street gangs (we will get back to Maduro’s coddling of the gangs). Even Torres had had it with Chavez. He spoke at an opposition rally on March 12, 2018, and was arrested the next day for “attempting to sow discord” among the armed forces.

Imagine again that Trump called a presidential election in which Democrats, Libertarians and Greens could not vote and in which leading candidates were otherwise banned from running and/or under arrest and/or in exile. I think that Trump would probably do ok under the circumstances, given that his key remaining competition would be Deez Nutz and Vermin Supreme.

Pilger makes a big deal about the turnout, but I asked my Venezuelan friends, who told me that if they promised to vote for Maduro and demonstrated they voted they received food supplies, which, under the circumstances in Venezuela, was a big deal (this is consistent with a story in the NYT). So the votes, or at least the turnout, were bought.

At long last we get to the matter of Juan Guaidó (who is a member of the Popular Will party, which, recall, was banned from the Constituent Assembly and Presidential election called by the Team Maduro Congress). Did Guaidó really just “appoint himself” as even the Western media keep repeating? Well, no. The Team Opposition Congress-in-exile (the one that won that election back in 2015 and was dissolved by the Team Maduro Court because… well, we never did figure out why… elected Guaidó President of the Assembly. This first resulted in the Team Maduro Government freezing his assets and imposing a travel ban on Guaidó. However, when the snap election had been called (the one Pilger thought convincingly showed Maduro’s support) the Team Opposition supreme court in exile annulled it in advance of it ever happening. It thus became the position of the Team Opposition Congress and Court that the 2018 election never happened and Maduro could not be the president. This brings us back to Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, which states that “when the president-elect is absolutely absent before taking office, a new election shall take place […] and until the president is elected and takes office, the interim president shall be the president of the National Assembly.” Since the Congress and Court in exile did not recognize Maduro as President, the Congress in exile declared that, following Article 233, Guaidó was the de jure interim president of Venezuela.

Did the United States have a hand in this? Probably, but it has its hand in a lot of elections. So does Russia and China and Israel and everyone else. The question is, can it be said with any clarity at all that Maduro is a more legitimate ruler of Venezuela according to Venezuelan law? I’m inclined to think that if you have strong views about the matter one way or another you really haven’t been paying attention.

I don’t know how much ordinary Venezuelans care about the above machinations; but I do know that they care about the economy, and trust me it has not escaped their attention that the stores are empty and there is no work and at this point there is a hyperinflation rate of around sixty thousand per cent annually (not hyperbole, fact, and I’m not relying on Forbes here, I actually follow black market exchange rates – sick hobby, I know). Why any serious person could think that the people of Venezuela support the current government under such circumstances is beyond me. It would attribute to the people extreme indifference to their well-being and the well-being of their friends and family. What I’m saying is that Leftists should stop posting memes that claim Maduro was elected in an honest election with 68% support. It’s insulting to the victims of Maduro.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the economic woes of Venezuela are entirely Maduro’s fault. He could not control the cratering of the market in crude oil, which damaged state income. But, let’s face it, the rest of the world had to face the same cratering oil market. And it is entirely on Maduro that he kept printing money and hyperinflated the economy. No one made him do that. For that matter, no one made him stop investing in his oil industry, causing it to have its lowest output in 30 years. Nor did anyone force him to replace competent people with cronies and to allow corruption and theft rise to a level that the oil infrastructure is being stripped clean by criminals (we will get to the crime business in a bit).

You might be thinking, well, isn’t some of this on the United States because of its sanctions? The Mint Press, for example, has claimed in a headline that the sanctions are “largely responsible” for the crisis and cites an interview with former UN official Alfred de Zayas that they might be a “crime against humanity.” This is just utter bullshit. Under Obama, the sanctions were targeted against precisely seven members of the Venezuelan government (or its Team Maduro government), of which six were members of the Security Forces and one was a prosecutor. What the sanctions do is freeze the US assets of those people and prevent them from acquiring US visas –not so different from what Maduro did to Guaidó and Attorney General Luisa Ortega. Trump has extended those sanctions to some fifty-eight additional individuals (including Maduro) and (under a new executive order) to the state oil company, but the Venezuela economy cratered long before Trump came into office and, indeed, before Obama issued EO 13692. The shit economy is on Team Maduro and no one else. None of which is to say the subsequent sanctions were just or right or that the Trump iteration of the sanctions is legal in terms of international law. Sanctions were not the problem with the Venezuelan economy.

By the way, the Obama sanctions were justified on the basis of the some of the political concerns raised above. The Congressional Research Service puts it this way.

“The E.O. targets (for asset blocking and visa restrictions) those involved in actions or policies undermining democratic processes or institutions; those involved in acts of violence or conduct constituting a serious human rights abuse; those taking actions that prohibit, limit, or penalize the exercise of freedom of expression or peaceful assembly; public corruption by senior Venezuelan officials; and any person determined to be a current or former leader of any entity engaged in any activity described above or a current or former official of the government of Venezuela.”

Was that true or is it just imperialist propaganda? That depends on how you feel about the fact that the leading opposition parties were not allowed to run in the election, and how you feel about the actions taken against Guaidó and Luisa Ortega Díaz and all those congresspersons and court members and politicians that were arrested and/or forced into exile (see above).

Of course there were sanctions that predated Obama’s. In 2008, two individuals were sanctioned for supporting Hezbollah, and since 2005 twenty or so individuals and corporations have been sanctioned for violating the drug kingpin act. But again, these have all been targeted sanctions, up until Trump’s most recent sanctions, which are aimed at the state oil company.

This leads us to the question of how deeply corrupt the Maduro government has become by virtue of its relations with narcos and other criminal gangs in Venezuela and around the world.

Corrupt government officials on the take of narcos are not especially rare. Where I live, in Mexico, it has been a persistent problem. (You may recall that in the El Chapo trial a witness claimed that a 100 million dollar bribe had been paid to previous Mexican President, Peña Nieto.) But if you follow the blogs like Borderland Beat and InSight Crime that follow the narco trade, as I do, then you will find a kind of consensus that the Maduro government has evolved into a full-blown narco state. And yeah, I know, InSight Crime is funded in part by Soros, but they do a good job on covering the narco business in Mexico and Colombia and I see no reason why they would fail to do so in Venezuela.

Before we get to direct corruption, it is worth remarking on a form of corruption-by-neglect that Venezuela struggles with. The gist of the problem is that numerous security duties have been “farmed out” to criminal gangs, with the result that parts of Venezuelan territory have been and probably still are under the control of nongovernmental gangs.

Under Maduro, the government began implementing a hands-off policy regarding organized crime, ceding control of municipalities and districts to criminal gangs (the aforementioned “collectivos”) in high crime areas that, in an Orwellian instant classic, were labelled “peace zones” (zonas de paz). Recall that Miguel Torres was removed from office after taking lethal police action against said gangs. Under the subsequent direction of José Vicente Rangel Avalos, who is now the mayor of Sucre, the government established an understanding with the gangs that its security would not enter those territories without permission of the gang.

For any government on Earth this would count as a dereliction of duty, but for a supposedly Marxist state like Venezuela it is treasonous. Over the past 100 years, Marxist states have made lots of mistakes, but one thing they have been good at is stamping out organized crime within their borders. Frankly, they have to be good at it. If you are subsidizing gasoline (by some accounts Venezuelans pay 5 cents/gallon) and food prices (as Venezuela does) then you absolutely do not want criminal elements taking those subsidized goods and reselling them on the black market or in neighboring countries (there is even a word for this practice in Venezuela: “bachaqueo”). In such a case you are simply handing wads of cash to criminals while your grocery stores and gas stations become empty. But Venezuela enabled precisely those conditions, in particular by ceding control of its border areas to criminal gangs.

The details here are pretty robust, with specific neighborhoods and districts identified as “peace zones.” In the area surrounding Caracas, the gang-controlled peace zones were Cota 095, El Cemeterio, and El Valle. In the border state of Zulia the peace zones include the municipalities of Jesús Enrique Lossada, Rosario de Perijá, and Catatumbo (all of which rest on the Colombian border). Several municipalities in the border state of Táchira were also declared peace zones and under criminal control.

As I said earlier, there are dangers to turning over areas of your country to criminal gangs, but turning over border areas is particularly problematic because it enables the smuggling of all subsidized goods into Colombia where they can earn a hefty premium over the subsidized price. Great news for Colombians and smugglers; not so great for the people in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. And in point of fact, the smuggling did not take the form of your mom selling her gallon of cooking oil and flour to a local criminal. The rip-off took place at the wholesale level, meaning that material was moving into Colombia in bulk without ever seeing the shelves in Venezuela.

At a minimum, allowing this activity was criminal negligence on the part of Maduro’s government. True Marxists all over the world should have been sending young people with ice picks after him. But what if the policy was not merely negligent? What if it was actually purposeful and members of the Maduro government were actually directly involved in the smuggling business and were using it as a way to enrich themselves? Then ice picks might be too good for them.

Consider this: On August 26, 2016 Venezuelan National Guard Lieutenant Luis Alberto Quero Silva was busted in the municipality of Juan Antonio Sotillo with 2,700 kilos of wheat flour. It does not take a genius to realize that the lieutenant could hardly have been acting alone, and one needn’t be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that the involved parties included individuals higher up on the military food chain.

How high up and how deep does the corruption go? Borderland Beat had Maduro’s son meeting with El Chapo. But there is also a long and storied history of the Venezuelan military being involved in the illegal drug trade (which has since morphed into the illegal food and fuel trade). For example the Cartel of the Suns (so-called because of the stars on military uniform epaulets, although now facetiously called “the Cartel of the Flour” because of other smuggling activities) has been in operation since 1993. Such things are not new in Central America. What IS new is the apparent Maduro policy of putting these crooks into high ranking government positions.

Say what you will about narco control over Mexico and Colombia, at least they did not put the narcos into positions of direct power (remember that Colombia would not let Pablo Escobar serve in the Congress?). Wait, am I saying that Maduro put known crooks in high positions of power? Yes, I am. Why would he do that? InSight Crime has a theory:

“Instead of sidelining those accused of drug trafficking, Maduro has promoted them to the highest offices, perhaps calculating that they have the most to lose if his regime falls and will therefore fight the hardest to preserve it.”

If that theory is right, it would explain some things. Depending on who you talk to Diosdado Cabello is either the number two or number one guy in Venezuela (there is a theory that he is Maduro’s puppet master). Either way, he is under investigation for drug trafficking and for being a leader in the Cartel of the Suns, and his former security chief has gone on record as saying Cabello has a hand in drug movement throughout Venezuela. Meanwhile, the head of the national guard (we talked about the national guard in the flour smuggling case), one Major General Néstor Reverol (I guess he is now Interior Minister) has been indicted in the United States for drug trafficking.

I wish I could say that there were only a handful of bad apples, but these examples are just among the highest ranking of the tainted officials. Government positions linked to the Cartel of the Suns include the Military Counterintelligence Director, The National Director of the Office Against Organized Crime, The Intelligence Service Director, The Trujillo State Governor, the Minister of the Interior, The Minister of Urban Agriculture, The President of the National Assembly, Subdirector of the National Anti-Narcotics Office, Head of the Investigative Division of Interpol, Head of the Anti-Narcotics Command, Head of Financial Intelligence, Head of Investigative Police, Trade Minister, Petrol and Mining Minister, Inspector General of the Investigative Police, National Treasurer, and Captain of the National Guard.

The problem is that Venezuela is not MERELY a narco state. It is also a kleptocracy. By this I mean that trafficking in narcotics isn’t necessarily designed to bleed your country dry. But other activities do precisely that. We already discussed one example: the wholesale smuggling of subsidized commodities into Colombia for sale at market prices. But Venezuelan officials and business elites (yes, there are are plenty of Venezuelan business elites; Maduro’s Venezuela is “socialist” in name only) even game the currency restrictions. There are names for these people: “boliburgués” and “bolichicos.”

Here is how it works. Instituted originally by Chavez, there are two currency markets in Venezuela. On one market, let’s call it the official market, the dollar/bolivar exchange rate is subsidized. The other market, the black market, floats at whatever the international exchange rate is. Depending on the day and state of crisis in Venezuela, the black market can fetch ten times more bolivars than the official rate.

Here again we have an instance where organized crime can kill a system of subsidies in an allegedly Marxist state like Venezuela. It works like this. Suppose you have someone in Venezuela with access to the official, subsidized, exchange rates. You loan them, say 42 million dollars worth of Bolivares which you acquired at on the black market. They, having access to the official Maduro rate, change it back to dollars, yielding 600 million dollars, which somehow finds its way to your account in Malta or the Dominican Republic. For their hard work, you toss them a hundred million dollars or so. By the way, this isn’t a hypothetical case, it is a real case from a trial involving Globovision President Raúl Gorrín. In this particular case it was necessary for Gorrín to pay some 160 million USD in bribes to various Venezuelan government officials, but it was ultimately worth it, helping to pay for his Ferrari and home in Coral Gables, Florida.

But I digress. Gorrin, you see, was just a small piece in a 1.2 billion dollar money laundering and corruption case, that included numerous members of the Maduro inner circle, including his two step-sons.

But even this is just a drop in the bucket. Some estimates put the amount of money pilfered from Venezuela via currency schemes at $300 hundred billion US dollars. Is this New York Times fake news? Well, the accusations come from Hector Nararro, who ran five ministries under Chavez, and from Jorge Giodani, who was the Finance Minister under Chavez. In Navarro’s view, “A gang was created that was only interested in getting their hands on financial resources, on (the country’s) oil revenue,” or as he also more succinctly put it, “Thieves have no ideology.”

I can’t prove that to you that all these charges are true, but I will say that I tire every carefully developed criminal charges from reliable sources being labelled “fake news” whether the defense comes from Trumpistas or Maduristas. I would not be so quick to sign up to Team Maduro.

With all this going on, or at least talk of it going on, Maduro scored one of the most epic own-goals of all time, allowing himself to be photographed with celebrity chef Salt Bae at his spendy restaurant in Istanbul – Salt Bae being famous for offering a $275 USD tomahawk steak and for decorating his steaks with gold dust – a dish subtly named the 24 Karat Gold Steak. It was like a scene out of Orwell’s Animal Farm, except the pigs, even though more-equal-than-the-other-animals, never thought to eat at Salt Bae and then let the chef upload their pictures to social media.

So here we are, stuck with a catastrophically inept and possibly deeply corrupt clown blowing up the socialist brand, and the Left, or at least the Left that I get exposed to in social media, falling all over itself trying to defend the guy. Honestly, if socialism is any sort of global movement, it has to find a way to pull the plug on this sort of human catastrophe. When it doesn’t, it effectively invites the United States and other western powers to come in and clean up the mess, which is to say, to install a brand new imperial mess. More urgently, the people under Maduro’s charge have become victims of his criminality and incompetence. Socialists should get rid of “leaders” like this before someone else does. They have nothing to lose but their kleptocrats.