The Frank Underwood of Venezuela

Behind the daily scenes of anti-government protests, another power struggle is underway.
Diosdado Cabello sits behind Nicolas Maduro during a state of the nation address. (Reuters/The Atlantic)

Meet Diosdado Cabello: Venezuela’s National Assembly chief, vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party, and ruthless pragmatist par excellence. If the makers of House of Cards are looking to expand the franchise south, they should get to know Venezuela’s Frank Underwood.

In recent weeks, Venezuela’s political crisis—mass protests in response to a flailing economy, rampant scarcities, soaring crime, and ideological polarization—has been portrayed in international media primarily as a struggle between a monolithic government and the embattled remnants of the nation’s traditional middle class. But this narrative is superficial; several storylines, both personal and social, are playing out below the surface. And these include a bitter clash between Hugo Chávez’s successor and almost-successor for the soul of his party and the future of the country.

For one party in this clash, President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s unrest has been deeply damaging. He is under fire for his ready reliance on state violence in dealing with unarmed demonstrators, which has left 18 people dead. In public appearances, he seems increasingly exhausted and more than a little unhinged.

For the other party, Cabello, the turmoil has been galvanizing. Suddenly he’s everywhere. When the popular opposition figure Leopoldo López was declared a wanted man, it was Cabello who negotiated his surrender with his family. Later, during the arrest itself—a preposterous affair in which López gave himself up during a mass demonstration—it was again Cabello who showed up to escort him to jail (despite having no judicial or police authority), ostensibly to “assure his safety.” Soon after, when security forces squared off with Ángel Vivas, a renegade former general who barricaded himself in his home in defiance of an arrest order, it was Cabello—not Maduro—who played the most visible official role in the dramatic showdown.

What’s more, mere days after López first called for anti-government protests, state media announced that Cabello would be starring in his own weekly television show. The first episode featured a ‘surprise’ visit from Maduro and a music video by Cabello’s daughter, Daniella, in which she sang a ballad to the recently departed Chávez. The video went viral among government supporters, and Daniella has remained in the headlines by publicly “forgiving” a young regime opponent who had sent her a threatening tweet.

In other words, as Venezuela marks the first anniversary since Chávez’s death, the struggle between Cabello and Maduro is becoming more pronounced. And Cabello appears to be winning.

***

Diosdado Cabello began his political career as one of Chávez’s junior comrades-in-arms from the military, during a failed putsch against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. The plot miscarried, and Cabello was briefly jailed for his participation. After his release, he assisted Chávez during his first successful presidential bid in 1998, and was singled out early on for his toughness and efficacy.

Diosdado Cabello walks with Hugo Chávez in 2008. (Reuters/Miraflores Palace)

His political trajectory since has been remarkable both for its duration (Chávez was quick to sideline potential rivals) and its variety. His posts have included stints as the minister of planning, justice, the interior, public works, and housing, along with stretches as a state governor, the head of the National Telecommunications Commission, and Chávez’s chief of staff and presidential campaign manager. Following the collapse of a bloodless coup in 2002 that briefly ousted Chávez, Cabello, then vice president, even assumed the presidency—an ephemeral tenure that lasted mere hours until Chávez himself could be located and constitutional order (or at least what passes for it in Venezuela) restored. Ten years later, with Chávez ailing, many suspected Cabello might be anointed his heir, but he was instead passed over for the country’s current president, Nicolás Maduro.

Today, as head of Venezuela’s Socialist-dominated unicameral legislature, the 50-year-old Cabello rules over his fief with brutal efficiency. For all the incarnadine gusto of Kevin Spacey’s character, Cabello often does Frank Underwood one better. On his watch, the National Assembly has made a habit of ignoring constitutional hurdles entirely—at various times preventing opposition members from speaking in session, suspending their salaries, stripping particularly problematic legislators of parliamentary immunity, and, on one occasion, even presiding over the physical beating of unfriendly lawmakers while the assembly was meeting.

***

In a region of the world where charisma is king, Cabello—whose first name, Diosdado, translates to “God-given”—is something of an oddity. He amasses his influence not as a mesmerizer of crowds, but as a master manipulator of those around him. Artfully leveraging his position and alliances, he mercilessly crushes enemies, lavishly rewards friends, and even helps fill government offices with members of his own family. His wife is a member of the National Assembly, his brother is in charge of the nation’s taxation authority, and his sister is a Venezuelan legate to the United Nations.

In these ways, Cabello has accumulated clout among crucial constituencies such as wealthy businessmen and the armed forces, where 36 generals are from Cabello’s graduating class at Venezuela’s military academy. Cabello’s tendrils are even rumored to extend to shadier realms, including alleged ties to narco-trafficking syndicates and criminal organizations. A Wikileaked U.S. Embassy cable from 2009 characterized Cabello as a “major pole” of corruption within the regime, describing him as “amassing great power and control over the regime’s apparatus as well as a private fortune, often through intimidation behind the scenes.” The communiqué likewise entertained speculation that “Chavez himself might be concerned about Cabello's growing influence but unable to diminish it.”

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Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez is a geopolitical-risk analyst based in Chicago, where he teaches Latin American business at the Kellogg School of Management. He is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional.

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