With Blacklisted Officials, Venezuela’s Maduro Builds a Core

David Smilde

This week President Nicolás Maduro named Gen. Nestor Reverol as Minister of Interior and Justice (MIJ). The designation came a day after Reverol’s indictment was unsealed in US Federal Court. The MIJ is one of the most powerful ministries in Venezuela, with all police forces under its authority. 

The quick response of many was that this was another demonstration of Chavismo’s defiant attitude, or that this was more evidence of Venezuela’s status as a rogue state. US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinan (R Florida) tweeted in Spanish “Only in Venezuela: Maduro names Nestor Reverol Minister after being accused in US court of cooperating with narcos.”

However, the logic is much more troubling than that. At a time when his government is on the ropes, Maduro seems to be building a core security team among officials that have in some way been blacklisted by the US. This makes sense since these officials have high “exit costs” in any transition scenario. Put differently, they will be loyal and fight to finish because their ability to avoid US justice depends on the survival of Chavismo in power.

On July 7, Maduro designated Gen. Antonio Benavides Torres as the Chief Commander of the Bolivarian National Guard. The National Guard is the branch of the Armed Forces responsible for domestic security and is the primary security force charged with policing protest. Benavides is one of the seven officials targeted by the US for sanctions in March 2015.

And of course Maduro responded to those sanctions a year and a half ago by namiing General Gustavo González Lopez, also on the list, as MIJ only two days later. He simultaneously held this position for over a year while leading the Inteligence Service (SEBIN). Reverol is now taking over the MIJ, but González López will remain at the head of the SEBIN.

The logic of cultivating a loyal core among security officials extends beyond those who are on some sort of US blacklist. The recent designation of Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino López as the head of the “Grand Supply Mission” that will take control of Venezuela’s entire food supply system, effectively makes him and the military direct stake holders in the government’s weakest flank: food scarcities. If there is mass social unrest because of shortages, it will not be aimed at a government who then needs to hope the military defends it, it will be aimed at the military itself.