CARACAS, Venezuela – The man at the center of a major U.S. drug-trafficking investigation involving top members of the Venezuelan government is the Speaker of the National Assembly and the country’s second most powerful man, 53-year-old Diosdado Cabello Rondón.
A longtime ally of late President Hugo Chavez, whom he met while in the Military Academy back in the 80s, Cabello is known these days as Chavismo´s main bully and has repeatedly been accused of corruption.
As President Nicolas Maduro, and President Chavez before him, Cabello also has his own weekly TV show television, in which he mostly attacks opposition leaders and other “enemies” of the so-called revolution. He calls his sources “patriotas cooperantes” (cooperating patriots), infiltrated revolutionary agents who work all over the country collecting data about possible conspiracies against the government or other politically useful information.
After Chávez’s death in 2013, Cabello morphed into the revolution's watchdog. “Chávez was the flood barrier that held all the crazy ideas we came up with,” he warned the opposition just three weeks after the president’s passing.
But his military hand and tough stances have also shooed away some followers. Ahead of December 2013 local elections, more than 100 members of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) were expelled for supporting party candidates not hand-picked by the government.
Discipline was necessary, he argued.
By investigating Cabello, the U.S. is taking on one of the Venezuela’s most influential figures – one whose downfall could further fracture an administration already reeling from an economy on the brink of collapse.
Last month not many were shocked when he sued 22 media executives whose outlets had carried news reported by Spanish newspaper ABC regarding him being investigated in the U.S. – basically anticipating The Wall Street Journal article that broke the news to the American world this week.
The media executives found out too that a court order now also bans them from leaving the country, and Cabello readily admitted on his TV show that he was behind the move.
With all the bullying, his image has steadily slipped and his numbers have plummeted on the opinion polls. Félix Seijas, a renowned pollster in Venezuela, estimates that today just around 10 percent of Venezuelans approve his image.
“His approval is getting worse and worse. Even Chavistas think he is radical and aggressive,” Seijas told Fox News Latino.
But Cabello wasn’t always like this. Having actively supported Chavez’s coup attempt against President Carlos Andrés Perez in 1992, he was rewarded with very prominent positions when his mentor got elected president six years later.
A professional engineer, at first Cabello was first appointed to Conatel, the office that regulates telecommunications in Venezuela.
“He worked well and was known as a smart politician,” journalist Hernán Lugo Galicia told FNL.
Things started to change in 2001, when Chavez appointed him secretary of the presidency and then vice president, position he was holding during the 2002 failed coup to overthrow Chávez.
“Those years close to the president made him more radical and tough,” noted Lugo Galicia.
In 2003 he was named minister of infrastructure and also, again, head of Conatel, from where he battered media companies – like Globovisión – that were not aligned with the government.
The next year he was elected governor of Miranda, a populous state that includes part of Caracas, a term that was term plagued with corruption allegations. When the opposition took over the state four years later, Cabello was formally accused of irregularities that had allegedly resulted in the loss of 480 million bolivares (more than $76 million).
Cabello said those allegations, which were never investigated, were politically motivated fabrications.
“They always accuse me, saying that I own big companies and houses,” Cabello has said more than once. “I ask the Venezuelan people to go to those properties and take over them. When they do that, the true owners will appear.”
In 2010, he was elected to represent his native state, Monagas, in Congress. Soon afterward he was back in the spotlight thanks to Chávez, who appointed him vice president of the PSUV party in 2011 and later endorsed his successful run for president (speaker) of the National Assembly in 2012.
These two positions led Cabello to become Chavismo’s second most important man.
Cabello’s family members also hold key government positions. His brother, José David, who is also mentioned in the U.S. probe, is currently minister of industry and head of Seniat, Venezuela’s IRS. His wife, Marleny Contreras, was recently appointed minister of tourism.
In recent months, Cabello has been using social media to show a softer side and a family-man image. It helps that his daughter, 21-year-old singer Daniella, is a local celebrity with her pop songs about president Chávez and the revolution.
Cabello has two more sons, both in their 20s, who seem reluctant to enter the political field.
The day after the Wall Street Journal article was published, the National Assembly passed a resolution in support of Cabello, backing his arguments that the international media is trying to damage his reputation and further debilitate the relations between Venezuela and the U.S.
“I can’t waver in this difficult moment,” he said on Tuesday to the press gathered outside the Assembly. “This attack is not against me, it is against Venezuela … I will stay in front of the revolution as I promised president Chávez.”
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.