Top Defector Tells of Spying, Stealing and Mutiny in Venezuela

(Bloomberg) -- Days after being named chief of Venezuela’s feared Sebin intelligence agency last fall, General Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera was called in by President Nicolas Maduro and asked where the enemy was.

“I don’t understand the question, sir,” Figuera says he responded.

“I want a report every two hours of what the political opposition is doing,” Maduro replied, listing some of the 30 politicians whose whereabouts and activities were to be surveilled. Reports, he said, needed to be sent not only to him but to his wife, Cilia Flores, and to Vice President Delcy Rodriguez. The monitoring involved spreadsheets with photos, mobile phone taps and round-the-clock shifts of on-the-ground four-agent teams observing movements and meetings.

Figuera, the most significant Venezuelan defector of the past two decades, is in the U.S. offering details of Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the schemes by which he, his family and associates embezzle the proceeds of oil, gold and other national treasures as the once-wealthy nation of 30 million descends into chaos and starvation.

Over five hours of interviews with Bloomberg in a Miami hotel and a nearby sports bar, Figuera, a burly 55-year-old trained in Cuba and Belarus, contended that the Venezuelan intelligence services have infiltrated Colombia’s security apparatus. With that penetration, early this year the Venezuelans tracked the movements of a key defector, Colonel Oswaldo Garcia Palomo, who was captured, tortured and interrogated after sneaking across the Colombian border to help organize a rebellion.

“A member of the Colombian intelligence service was in touch with one of ours and gave Palomo a telephone,” he said. “With that telephone they followed him.” Figuera contended that Palomo’s torture took place not at his Sebin agency but at the DGCIM, military counterintelligence. Figuera said Palomo, who’s still in Sebin prison, is a friend whose mistreatment horrified him.

The Colombian presidency said in reply to written questions that it is looking into the matter. The defense ministry didn’t respond to written requests for comment.

Much of Figuera’s narrative surrounds his claim that the abuse, corruption and authoritarianism he encountered after he took up his top position shocked him. This has been met with skepticism by leaders of the opposition who note that Figuera spent a decade as deputy head of DGCIM before taking over Sebin and that he certainly seemed fully integrated into the most brutal elements of the security apparatus before defecting.

Figuera addressed this, saying: “I share responsibility for Maduro’s stay in power, like any official who’s been part of this criminal enterprise. But if someone has evidence against me, I have no fear to face justice.”

Figuera’s status in the U.S. is temporary. Removed from a list of sanctioned Venezuelan officials upon defecting, he’s been granted a permit to stay but not to be a resident. His wife, Barbara Reinefeld, who attended the second part of the interview, has a longer-term visa because she has a sister and a son living in the U.S. The couple are staying with family in Miami as they try to figure out what’s next, although Figuera says he wants only to return to his homeland as soon as possible, adding that he believes Maduro can’t last out the year. A senior U.S. official said that if Figuera wants to stay, he’ll have to apply for residency or asylum.

April Betrayal

On April 30, when Juan Guaido, recognized as Venezuela’s interim president by the U.S. and more than 50 countries, went to a military base to drive Maduro from power, Figuera was part of the plot. He and Guaido believed other top officials were with them, including the president of the Supreme Court and the defense minister. But they didn’t show -- it remains unclear whether they hesitated at the last minute or only feigned interest -- leaving Figuera alone among senior officials to openly declare a shift in loyalty. He hasn’t spoken to either Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez or Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno since his departure and says he longs to look each in the eyes and challenge him over his betrayal.

Shortly after the failed attempt, he escaped to Colombia. In June, after fearing for his life there, Figuera flew to the U.S. where he spent days briefing U.S. officials.

Guaido and his aides, who have named officials in Caracas as well as ambassadors and advisers in Washington and elsewhere to serve as a rival government to Maduro’s, seem unsure what to do with Figuera. Some have accompanied him to briefings and interviews but he hasn’t been integrated into the group.

Carlos Vecchio, the Guaido ambassador to Washington, said in an interview that Figuera’s role is to provide evidence against Maduro. The interim government isn’t offering him any support in the US.

Figuera was until three months ago one of Maduro’s most trusted lieutenants, attending key meetings and helping him consolidate power. In March of last year, he said in the interview, Maduro sent him to the Dominican Republic to meet an official of the Central Intelligence Agency to negotiate an end to the U.S. economic embargo, suspend sanctions and open a channel of communication. The Americans had different ideas. They wanted Maduro to step down, release an American from prison and permit new elections. The effort went nowhere.

Illicit Gains

Figuera said that up close, he realized that the president is seeking personal enrichment and totalitarian control. He said the president’s 29-year-old son, Nicolas Maduro Guerra, has created a gold trading monopoly involving businessmen Eduardo Rivas and Alex Saab. When Figuera tried to launch an investigation into the gold trade, Vice President Rodriguez told him to back off, he said. Saab, a Colombian citizen, was indicted July 25 on U.S. money laundering charges, accused of funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to overseas accounts. Figuera also named Industry Minister Tareck el Aissami as the coordinator of international gold sales. Aissami was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2017.

Maduro Guerra declined to comment in an email response; Rodriguez didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did the Information Ministry.

In recent months, Figuera began discussing with select colleagues how to edge Maduro out of power. They talked about setting up a South African-style reconciliation commission and a reformed political order. A number of top officials took part in the planning, he said, but declined to name them out of concern for their safety. Figuera said he is also part of an effort to document Maduro’s misdeeds and present the evidence to international tribunals of justice.

He said the Cuban protective force around Maduro has increased markedly in recent weeks to some 200 agents from around 20. The U.S. and much of the West have sought to isolate Maduro, especially after his re-election last year in a race widely condemned as rigged and illegitimate, and get him replaced by Guaido. But Cuba, Russia, China, Turkey and Iran remain allies helping the regime stay in power, Figuera said.

He dismissed the recent negotiations between the government and opposition in Norway, now in Barbados, as useless unless Maduro agrees to step down. Otherwise, he said, the president will try to use the talks to buy time and reduce sanctions, which are hurting.

“What’s going on in Venezuela?” he said when asked to sum things up. “Well, it’s being destroyed.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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