The Frank Underwood of Venezuela

Behind the daily scenes of anti-government protests, another power struggle is underway.
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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.”

This strategy is not without its drawbacks. Cabello is personally despised by regime opponents, who see him as a bullying mafioso, and also deeply distrusted by many of the government’s own supporters, who view him as corrupt, opportunistic, overly ambitious, and not sufficiently dedicated to the revolutionary principles of the United Socialist Party.

And true to Frank Underwood form, Cabello is excellent at getting himself appointed to lofty posts but less skilled at the ballot box. In 2008—despite enjoying the government’s vast financial and logistical support, and the tacit assistance of Venezuela’s famously preferential electoral authorities—he lost his reelection bid for the governorship of Miranda, Venezuela’s second-most-populous state, to Henrique Capriles: a foil who would eventually rise to challenge Chávez himself for the presidency in 2012. 

Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello beside Hugo Chávez's coffin. (Reuters/Miraflores Palace)

Cabello’s influence is shaped by the two divergent political groups within Venezuela’s ruling party: one pragmatic, the other ideological. The first, typified by Cabello, is the more classically populist Latin American movement: nationalistic, corrupt, and platitudinous. The second seeks international revolution and a wholesale transformation of Latin American society. Through oil diplomacy, this latter camp has sought to turn socialist Venezuela into a force in regional and global affairs, pumping state funds into maintaining friendly client regimes in Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Its members have allegedly also worked to influence elections as far afield as Mexico while strengthening ties with countries such as Iran and Russia.

At the peak of his power, Chávez was able to harness both these factions through the sheer force of his personality. Prior to his death, however, he staked his legacy on the ideological camp. As his health failed, Cuban influence within the Venezuelan government grew, and the regime in Havana—highly dependent economically on Venezuelan largesse in the form of subsidized oil and other assistance—pushed hard for Maduro, an idealist with strong ties to the Castros, to be made successor. Chávez’s cancer diagnosis likewise came at a time when Cabello’s clout seemed to be waning. Old corruption allegations resurfaced, and some of his allies were purged. This estrangement appeared to peak in 2012 when Chávez, during a live televised broadcast, unexpectedly recommended that Cabello run for the governorship of remote Monagas state. The region may have been Cabello's birthplace, but the proposal smacked of political exile. Cabello demurred.

Following Chávez’s death, and Maduro’s enshrinement as his heir, the Venezuelan constitution arguably left Cabello, as head of the legislature, acting president until elections could be held. Yet Maduro’s cadre managed to convince the relevant authorities to simply ignore the provision, allowing the position to pass to him and depriving Cabello of another shot at a truncated presidency.

While the two men have been publicly supportive of each other since then, the relationship may be far tenser than they let on. In April 2013, after Maduro eked out a contested electoral victory over Capriles, Cabello tweeted to his nearly 1 million followers that the government should engage in “profound self reflection” about why it had performed so poorly relative to Chávez’s last election. As the latter race had taken place mere months before, against the same opponent and with the same regime advantages, the implication of Cabello’s message was clear: ‘Maduro is a liability.’

A number of leaks have offered further evidence of an enduring rivalry. In May 2013, the opposition mysteriously obtained a recording of Mario Silva, a popular, pro-government ideologue and television host, discussing internal regime matters with a high-ranking member of Cuba’s secret police. In the audio, Cabello, whom Silva described as a “very great son of a whore,” was depicted as a power-hungry, kleptomaniacal thug, and a constant but irremovable thorn in the side of Maduro.

Publicly, the government tried to discredit the recordings as CIA/Mossad counterfeits, but Silva was promptly taken off the air. Cabello emerged from the scandal relatively unscathed and soon appeared beside Maduro on state television, looking untouchable and leaving some Venezuelans to wonder if he had orchestrated the leak himself.

***

As Venezuela’s protests enter their fourth week, the ultimate goal of Cabello’s latest charm offensive remains unclear. Opposition leaders have expressed concerns that, in facing off against Maduro, they risk enabling a Cabello takeover. Yet even in the unlikely event that the crisis results in Maduro resigning or being pushed out, a Cabello presidency would still require a national election, barring the outright suspension of the country’s constitution. And elections have never been Cabello’s forte.

But it’s best to not give such inconveniences much thought. Unlike Frank Underwood, his Netflixolano counterpart, Cabello’s endgame may not be the presidency itself. It is, instead, power with impunity that he seeks. If Maduro falls, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Cabello does not play an integral role in deciding who and what succeeds him. With the deck sufficiently stacked, it may not matter much to Diosdado Cabello who the king is—so long as he remains the ace.

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Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.

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