US lifts sanctions on Venezuelan ex-spy chief, calls on others to defect

SEBIN VenezuelaIn an effort to persuade senior members of the Venezuelan government to defect, the United States has lifted punitive financial sanctions on the country’s intelligence director, who left his post on April 30. General Christopher Figuera became director of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) in October 2018. SEBIN is Venezuela’s primary intelligence agency and has a dual domestic and international role. Much of its domestic mission is to protect and defend the Bolivarian Revolution, which forms the ideological framework of the government headed by President Nicolás Maduro. It follows that SEBIN’s employees are all trusted supporters of Venezuela’s embattled President.

On February 15 of this year, the United States government included General Figuera on a financial sanctions list of Venezuelan government officials who held senior posts in the Maduro government. But on April 30, General Figuera appeared to be one of relatively few senior Venezuelan officials to respond favorably to an open call by Juan Guaidó, the United States-supported President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, to remove Maduro from power. Figuera was reportedly denounced by Venezuelan government officials and summarily replaced by Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez, who was director of SEBIN until he was replaced by Figuera in 2018.

On Tuesday, the United States government said that it had removed General Figuera from its financial sanctions list. Speaking before reporters in Washington, US Vice President Mike Pence said that Figuera was “an example to follow” for other senior Venezuelan government officials and urged more of them to follow Figuera’s example. Pence added that the US government wanted to reward Figuera for abandoning his post and denouncing Maduro. In a subsequent statement given to the media, the US Department of the Treasury said that removal of sanctions “may be available” for all senior Venezuelan officials “who take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order” in the Latin American country. The statement did not elaborate on the meaning of taking “concrete and meaningful actions”.

In a potentially related development, the Venezuelan government said on Tuesday that it had taken control of three private airfields in the vicinity of the capital city of Caracas, in order “to prevent illicit acts which would compromise the safety of civil aviation”. It is believed that General Figuera left the country with his family using a private airfield, and that the Maduro government is trying to stop others from following his example.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 May 2019 | Permalink

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Maduro fires intelligence chief amidst reports of inner circle defections

Venezuela crisisThe embattled President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, has reportedly fired his intelligence director, as news emerged early on Thursday that members of his inner circle were considering removing him from power. These reports circulated shortly after Juan Guaidó, President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, openly called on the country’s Armed Forces to remove Maduro from power. Guaidó has been recognized by over 50 countries —including the United States and much of the European Union— as the legitimate president of Venezuela. But Maduro continues to be supported by a number of powerful allies, including China and Russia, which sent troops there last month.

On Wednesday, Maduro dismissed General Christopher Figuera from the post of director of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN). SEBIN is Venezuela’s primary intelligence agency and has a dual domestic and international role. Much of its domestic mission is to protect and defend the Bolivarian Revolution, which forms the ideological framework of the country’s socialist government. Critics accuse SEBIN of operating as the Venezuelan government’s political police, and of committing scores of human rights abuses against supporters of the opposition. But it appears that Figuera responded favorably to Guaidó’s call on April 30 for an uprising against Maduro. Speaking at a rally on Tuesday, Guaidó said that the Venezuelan military “no longer back […] Maduro […]. They are backing the constitution and are for a change of government”, he said. He went on describe the movement against Maduro as “a usurpation”.

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal claimed that Venezuelan opposition forces had been holding “secret talks” with members of Maduro’s inner circle, aimed at removing Maduro from power. Among those who held secret talks with opposition negotiators, said the paper, were Minister of Defense General Vladimir Padrino, and General Iván Rafael Hernández, head of Venezuela’s military spy agency, the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM). Meanwhile, the American-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor said on Wednesday that the uprising led by Guaidó appeared to be “more extensive than initial reports indicated”. According to Stratfor, members of the military and security forces “seized multiple garrisons across the country” and created “substantial cracks” in the security services and the military. Other sources, however, including Britain’s Daily Telegraph, claimed that Guaidó’s efforts were “weak” and “folded” quite quickly. By Tuesday night, said The Telegraph, several members of Guaidó’s reform movement had sought asylum in foreign embassies in Caracas, and Guaidó’s whereabouts remained unknown. Observers noted, however, that the likelihood of further violence increased as the uprising continued to unfold, and that another “major event” could take place at any moment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 May 2019 | Permalink

 

Venezuelan ex-spy chief with ‘treasure trove of intel’ on Maduro arrested in Spain

Hugo CarvajalThe former director of Venezuela’s military spy agency, who is wanted in the United States for facilitating international drug trafficking, has been arrested in Spain and may be extradited to Washington. Hugo Carvajal is a retired general and former diplomat, who was a member of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s inner circle. From 2004 to 2011, under Chávez’s tutelage, Carvajal headed the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM). But in 2008, the US named Carvajal as a major facilitator of international drugs trafficking and imposed financial sanctions on his assets around the world. Washington accused Carvajal of assisting the paramilitary group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) transport drugs from Latin America to Mexico and from there to the US.

In 2014, the US government officially charged Carvajal with orchestrating a shipment of 1,200lbs of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico. Washington also charged Carvajal with supplying FARC drug traffickers with Venezuelan passports bearing fake names, which they used to travel internationally to avoid detection. In 2014, Carvajal was arrested by authorities in Aruba, a Dutch overseas territory in Latin America, where he was serving as Venezuela’s consul general. But, to Washington’s dismay, he was released after the Dutch government ruled that his diplomatic immunity gave him immunity from prosecution. Following his release, Carvajal returned to Venezuela, where he was given a hero’s welcome by Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro. It came as a shock, therefore, when in February of this year Carvajal posted a video on social media in which he denounced Maduro and sided with his arch-nemesis, Juan Guaido, the President of the National Assembly of Venezuela. Carvajal’s issued his video a few weeks after Guaido declared himself president of Venezuela, citing powers afforded to him by the country’s constitution. He has since been openly supported by the United States and dozens of other Western countries. In his video, Carvajal urged the Venezuelan armed forces to stop siding with Maduro and support Guaido as Venezuela’s acting president.

The BBC reported that, shortly after Carvajal’s arrest in Spain, the US Department of Justice filed a formal request for the former spy chief’s extradition to the US. But the Reuters news agency cited an unnamed US government official who said that Carvajal was in possession of a “treasure trove” of intelligence about Maduro’s administration. The US official hinted that Carvajal may have willingly given himself up to Spanish police to express his desire to cooperate with the US. He is scheduled to appear before Spain’s High Court on Saturday. The court has 24 hours following Carvajal’s arrest to rule whether he will be extradited or freed from detention.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 April 2019 | Permalink

Moscow confirms arrival of Russian troops in Venezuela

Russian planes CaracasRussian media reports have confirmed that an airplane carrying 100 Russian troops arrived in Caracas on Saturday, causing tensions to rise between Washington and Moscow over the deepening crisis in Venezuela. The arrival of the Russian troops in the Venezuelan capital was first reported on Saturday morning by Venezuelan reporter Javier Mayorca, who said on Twitter that two Russian military airplanes had landed in Caracas. The reporter said that an Antonov An-124 Ruslan cargo plane belonging to the Russian Air Force could be seen on the tarmac of the Simón Bolívar International Airport in the Venezuelan capital. Another, smaller aircraft, also bearing the Russian flag on its fuselage, landed shortly afterwards, said Mayorca.

Within hours, several Venezuelan media reports appeared to confirm Mayorca’s claims, some even posting photographs of the two Russian planes surrounded by what appeared to be uniformed Russian soldiers. The BBC reported that the Russian cargo plane had delivered 100 Russian troops and 35 tons of military equipment. The force was led by General Vasily Tonkoshkurov, commander of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, according to the BBC. Later on Saturday, the Russian government-owned news agency Sputnik confirmed that Russian troops had arrived in Caracas. Citing anonymous “diplomatic sources”, Sputnik said the Russian troops had been sent to Caracas in order “to fulfil technical military contracts” and “to take part in consultations […] on defense industry cooperation” with Venezuelan officials. It added that there was “nothing mysterious” about the visit and that it was “related to [military] contracts that had been signed by the two countries years ago”.

Russia has supported Venezuela militarily, economically and diplomatically ever since 1999, when Hugo Chávez became president. The recent political crisis in the Latin American country, which has prompted a direct diplomatic intervention by Washington, has brought Caracas and Moscow closer together, as Russia has strongly opposed efforts by the United States to bring down the government of Nicolás Maduro. Earlier this year, Russia sent two Tu-160 long-range bomber aircraft to take part in a military exercise organized by the Venezuelan government.

On Monday, Washington said that the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. Pompeo told his Russian counterpart that Moscow should “cease its unconstructive behavior” and warned him that the United States would “not stand idly by as Russia exacerbated tensions” in Venezuela. Late on Monday, Sputnik quoted a “diplomatic source” as saying that that the “visit of Russian military personnel to Venezuela [was] in no way connected to the statements of the United States on potential intervention in Venezuela”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 March 2019 | Permalink

US to shut down its embassy in Venezuela as national blackout enters 6th day

US embassy in Caracas VenezuelaThe United States said on Tuesday that it will evacuate its last few diplomats from its embassy in Caracas, as the electricity blackout in Venezuela enters its sixth day, making it the longest energy crisis in the nation’s history. Energy shortages are not new in Venezuela. The oil-rich Latin American country of 31 million people suffered two disastrous nationwide blackouts in 2009 and a third one in 2016. But the current blackout is quickly approaching the one-week mark and is believed to have caused a minimum of 20 deaths, mostly in hospitals around the country. The majority of the population currently lacks access to fuel and banking services, while there are disruptions in critical food and water supply lines. Several instances of mass looting have been reported across the nation since Monday.

The precise cause of the blackout remains unknown, though a number of experts point to a massive outage of the Simón Bolívar Hydroelectric Plant, located in northeastern Venezuela’s Necuima Canyon, as the root of the problem. Known also as the Guri dam, the facility generates more than four fifths of Venezuela’s electricity output, and may be responsible for the nationwide blackout. The continuing crisis has exacerbated the already adversarial relationship between Washington and Caracas, as the Venezuelan government blames the US and the local opposition leader Juan Guaidó for the blackout. The government said on Monday that it would investigate Guaidó in connection with rumors of sabotage of the Guri dam facility. The announcement prompted the White House to warn that “a lot of countries would react very quickly” if Guaidó was incarcerated. On Tuesday, Washington said that the remaining 20 members of staff of its embassy in the Venezuelan capital would be evacuated by Friday. Soon afterwards, the Venezuelan government said that it had ordered the American diplomats to leave the country, so that their presence there would not be used as a pretext by Washington to launch a military invasion of the country.

Meanwhile, the blackout continued as of Tuesday night, with experts warning that the aging infrastructure of Venezuela’s energy network, coupled with the lack of specialists on the ground, made it difficult to overcome the crisis. The US-based Wired magazine explained on Tuesday that restoring the integrity of the energy grid following a large-scale blackout —a process known as a “black start”— will depend on being able to identify the root of the problem. But the absence of spare equipment and up-to-date monitoring software and hardware means that the Venezuelan state operator lacks the ability to visualize the grid and “understand the state of the system in real time”. At the same time, supporters of the Venezuelan government accuse Washington of sabotaging its oil-export sector by refusing to buy Venezuelan oil and threatening to impose sanctions on foreign states that purchase oil from Venezuela. That, they say, has deprived the country of its main source of hard currency and is makes it exceedingly difficult for Caracas to sustain the nation’s energy and food-supply networks.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 March 2019 | Permalink

Venezuelan government quells armed uprising by National Guard troops in Caracas

Bolivarian National GuardThe government of Venezuela said on Tuesday that it had quelled an armed uprising by nearly 30 members of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) in Caracas, which sparked an all-night riot in the Venezuelan capital. On Tuesday government officials announced the arrest of 27 members of the GNB who allegedly revolted against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Several videos were posted in pro-opposition social media accounts the night before. They showed young men in military uniforms brandishing weapons and calling on all Venezuelans to rise up against the country’s government. In one video posted on Twitter, a man wearing a GNB uniform said that he and his comrades in arms were speaking out “on behalf of the people of Venezuela”. He then urged viewers to “take to the streets” and bring down the government.

Early on Tuesday, officials in the Venezuelan Ministry of People’s Defense said that the officers had raided a GNB command post in Petare, a neighborhood in northwestern Caracas. They allegedly immobilized the command post guards and stole several weapons. The rebels then made their way to Cotiza, a neighborhood that is adjacent to Petare, and is considered a stronghold of anti-government sentiment. Late on Monday a number of videos emerged on social media that showed young men clashing with riot police in Cotiza. Police forces were seen using tear gas and noise grenades, while some of the rioters built makeshift barricades using cars, dumpsters and other large objects. However, no gunshots were heard coming from either side.

By noon on Tuesday the riot had ended and it appeared that all GNB rebels had been neutralized or gone into hiding. Government sources said that all 27 rebels had been arrested and were alive, but shared no information about the precise circumstances of their capture. It is not known whether they voluntarily surrendered to the police or whether they were somehow overpowered. Defense Ministry officials said that all stolen weapons had been retrieved and described the rebels as people representing “the shadowy interests of the far right”. All 27 GNB rebels were being questioned on Tuesday and Venezuelan officials said that they would be subjected to “the full force of the law”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 January 2019 | Permalink

Colombia says Venezuelans caught with submachine guns planned to kill president

Duque HolmesAuthorities in Colombia said that three Venezuelans, who were arrested in Colombia’s Caribbean coast with submachine guns and explosives, were planning to assassinate President Iván Duque. The claim was aired in a video posted on Twitter by Colombia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carlos Holmes, on December 29. In the brief video, Holmes said that Colombian intelligence services had uncovered evidence of a “credible threat to the life” or President Duque. He went on to suggest that the investigation into the alleged assassination operation had gone on for “several months” with the cooperation of “foreign intelligence agencies”, which he did not name. He also urged Colombians to come forward with any information in their possession that could assist the ongoing investigation.

On December 30, several Colombian newspapers reported that Holmes’ Twitter warning had been triggered by the arrest on December 21 of two Venezuelans in Colombia’s northern city of Valledupar. The two men, identified in media reports as Pedro José Acosta and José Vicente Gómez, both 22, were found to be in possession of rifles. Guillermo Botero, Colombia’s Minister of Defense, said later that the rifles were “high-precision” and were “camouflaged”, though he did not explain what that meant. On December 26, a third Venezuelan, identified in media reports as Geiger Vásquez, 35, was arrested in the city of Barranquilla. He was reportedly carrying a bag containing an Uzi submachine gun, along with ammunition and several grenades.

Government officials said that the attempt to kill President Duque could have been sponsored by leftist rebel groups, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), that are active in the Colombian-Venezuelan border. There were also accusations in some Colombian media that the government of Venezuela may have helped plan the alleged attempt on Duque’s life. Since assuming the Colombian presidency in August, Duque has spearheaded international efforts to impose sanctions on the leftwing Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro, who is about to begin his second term in office. Relations between the two neighboring countries have thus sunk to new lows in recent months. On Monday, the Venezuelan government said it had requested more information about the alleged assassination plot from Colombian authorities and that it would provide Bogotá with “the necessary police and intelligence cooperation” to help investigate the allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 January 2019 | Permalink