Michael Albert: Even while we have been there, there was, in the news – and you were on the TV a lot – that there was an assassination plot against President Maduro. Not the first. From where do you think this particular plot originated and what do you think is the general motivation of such plots?
Miguel Rodriguez Torres: As director of the intelligence service, I have publicly spoken about assassination attempts in three opportunities. The intention always was not only to try to kill the president, but to put an end to the revolutionary process. In the case of President Chávez, there was also the effort to have one of his bodyguards kill him, so that not only would he be killed, but to also put an end to his leadership, with this image of the president being killed by his own bodyguard.
The first assassination plot that I investigated was directed from Caracas. They wanted to kill him with a sniper. This sniper was in prison in the state of Guarico. He had asked for $5 million to kill the president. On the one hand, he asked for the money, on the other hand, he himself communicated to me that he did not want to do it. He was one of Venezuela’s most famous robbers and he was an expert with a particular type of sniper rifle. This is someone who has committed serious crimes in Venezuela. For example, he robbed armored cash transports – something from the movies. He was captured in Mexico and the DISIP transported him to Venezuela 20 years ago. During this time he made friends in the DISIP. So, via the old friends he had made in the DISIP, he passed the information on to me about how he would assassinate the president. I called him to find out the details and he told me that his strategy was to escape from prison, kill the president, and then return to the prison, so that he would have an alibi. Some time later then, his plan was to leave the prison for good and to leave the country. He proved all of this to me. I asked him, “How are you going to manage to leave the prison?” and he responded, “That’s already organized.” I even met him outside of prison, while he still was a prisoner, in a town Aragua state, with two girlfriends. He already could come and go as he pleased. All of this I told President Chávez. The mastermind of the whole plan was a great friend of Chávez’s. I prefer not to say who it was, in memory of the friendship that Chávez had with him. This plan fell apart because the prisoner’s trial was going to be in the state of Bolivar, in the south of Venezuela, so they transported him there and left him there. In the end, we could not arrest anyone for this plan because all of it remained on the level of intelligence work.
The second occasion in which there was an assassination attempt was May 2004, when they brought 150 paramilitary forces from Colombia. They gave them Venezuelan military uniforms and came with the intention of killing President Chávez. I think this was one of my best intelligence operations. If we had not been able to neutralize this plan, I think Venezuela today would be a different country. We managed to capture 150 Colombians and more or less 15 members of the national armed forces. This was the famous “Daktari” case. Another participant was Roberto Alonso, of Miami, and Orlando Urdaneta, also in Miami. Alonso has always been an ally of Luis Posada Carriles. Another participant was the former mayor of Caracas [Alfredo Peña], who, when the plan was uncovered, left the country, to Uruguay, I think. I have information that he is very ill now. Part of this plan was to steal two F-16 fighter jets; two officers of the Venezuelan military were going to do that, in order to bomb Chávez’s talk show, “Alo Presidente.” And during this bombing the 150 paramilitaries from Colombia were going to attack strategic points in Caracas. The boss of the Colombians was commander Lucas, who was a very trusted friend of Salvatore Mancuso, who was the second-in-command of the AUC (Auto-Defense Forces of Colombia). Commander Lucas was well known for how blood-thirsty he was. He even told me that he was going to cut off President Chávez’s head and smoke a cigar. This guy was deranged. This was the plan to kill Commandante Chávez.
Now, this third plan, which is against President Maduro, we found out through information that came to us from Miami. One of the first meetings for this plan had the participation of people who are tied to Luis Posada Carriles, who then traveled to Colombia. There they recruited Venezuelan agents. We found out everything that they were planning to do. I can’t tell you the method we used. We then determined that they traveled to Costa Rica and discovered that ten individuals, assassins, who were going to travel from Colombia to Venezuela, with the intention of killing President Maduro in one of his community meetings. The president exposes himself quite a lot. We knew of the movements of two of these assassins, who we followed with the use of telephone technology. When they traveled to Caracas and spent one night near the city, we managed to arrest them, two Colombian assassins [sicarios]. We got all of their data, their passports, boarding passes. The surprise factor helped us a lot. Once we obtained this information, I personally traveled to Bogotá, where I met with the Colombian director of intelligence and he provided us with all of the information about this particular group of assassins. They are directed by a certain individual with the alias “David,” who is the boss of a cartel of assassins. The two that we arrested admitted that they were in Venezuela to assassinate someone. Also, there is a witness, who said that a Venezuelan provided them with uniforms, rifles, etc. we still haven’t managed to capture this individual, though. All of the information that we got from different sources coincides. We were told that there were ten assassins and we found ten uniforms. When we went to Colombia to get information about the group of assassins, we found out that they are a group of ten. This is how intelligence work works, putting together various pieces of evidence. This is where we are at right now in this investigation.
MA: So this means that eight assassins are still lose in Venezuela? Or do you think they went back to Colombia?
MRT: We believe they have not come to Venezuela yet. The first two were the first to come here. Nevertheless, we are alert to their possible presence.
MA: In the case of Cuba over the years, there have been a great many of such plots, as well as outright terror tactics, coming from the U.S. There is a possible motivation for such policies, even if they don’t succeed in assassinating the president. They can force or abet or justify a kind of centralization of the state and a siege mentality that interferes with efforts to achieve greater democracy and self-management, instead generating repressiveness. Indeed, the effect of 9/11 in the U.S. and the emergence of homeland security, for example. So the question becomes, do you think you can protect President Maduro and the country and yet avoid that kind of siege mentality and centralization?
MRT: I believe that in Venezuela we have had to learn to live with a right wing that includes terrorist elements. And, despite the attacks of this right wing, we have never generalized repression. Instead, we have generalized action. In addition to this, our intelligence service has been able to reach very important level of operation capacity, so that it can focus on just that one objective. This is why I think we did not fall into a massive wave of repression. Also, we have a sufficient capacity to protect the life of the president. These are events we have had to live through because of the Venezuelan right wing [holds up posters with images of different terrorist attacks against the government].
Look, this was in the year 2003, the group of military officers who occupied Plaza Altamira [in Caracas], established a constant focus of disturbances in an important plaza of Caracas. They placed bombs at the Spanish and at the Colombian consulates. The perpetrators were processed and some of them escaped to Miami. They placed these bombs and destroyed the offices of the consulates.
Here’s another one, where they placed a bomb in a demonstration for the president. They placed the bomb in a garbage can on the route of the march. At that time I was already director of the intelligence service. We knew that they had placed an explosive somewhere along the route of the march. We first wanted to cancel the march, but then we decided to change the route of the march. We changed it, but nonetheless, one citizen was killed in the explosion.
In another incident, in the same plaza where they had placed the bombs [Altamira], they got this Portuguese mister, who first fired shots into the air and then started shooting people in the plaza. There were deaths and many injuries.
Again, in the same plaza, the right-wing politicians who were proselytizing with active duty officers, believed that these three soldiers were informers of the intelligence service and so they killed them. They killed the three and the girlfriend of one of them. This was investigated and the perpetrators were imprisoned. And some of the masterminds of the crime, one of them was Capitan Colina, now lives in Miami, speaking badly about Venezuela every day and has political asylum.
MA: All of this is exactly the kind of behavior, I think, which could be explained as trying to cause you, the government, to move toward far more centralized and repressive behavior.
MRT: This is not something that they managed to do. We have defeated them with intelligence and not with violence. And the mobilization of the public has been a fundamental factor, as well as the civil-military unity, and without a doubt intelligence work.
MA: There is a strange confluence of two themes emerging here. On the one the population has this long history of corruption and crime and it is very hard to overcome. On the other side, you, Chávez, and various other people, who exercising power from the government, you tell us, you aren’t corrupted and don’t become corrupted and don’t seek more power and don’t seek to centralize, even though you have a perfect excuse to do so, because of the terrorism of the right. There is a gigantic gap there, between your consciousness and what most people expect to find in such a government, and what is widespread in Venezuela as well. I know something like this is very hard to explain, but can you?
MRT: The situation in Venezuela is not easy to explain. The revolution has passed through many periods of strength and of weakness. When these things were happening we were just coming out of an oil industry shutdown. Venezuela went from 3 million barrels per day in exports, to 3,000, there was no gasoline, there were shortages of food, a type of collapse and many street mobilizations in early 2003. There was a great confrontation between two opposing models. The only way were able to overcome this confrontation was through more intelligence than violence. There was a temptation to use violence. There was a meeting in 2003, by this group of military officers and politicians, who had taken over this plaza, Plaza Altamira, and they set up a stage where active duty officers called for a military rebellion. We were confronted with the possibility that entire barracks would join this call. The defense minister at the time, in a meeting with President Chávez, proposed to take over the plaza by force, using tanks. The military sector was inclined to such an action. As director of the intelligence service, I was also a military officer, and I evaluated in what condition of governability the government was. The situation was one of great fragility, which also led to a recall referendum in 2004. I was one of the people at the time to recommend to the president that we should use a strategy of wearing them out and not through a confrontation. We succeeded with this. I think this even backfired for them. Even in the U.S. they condemned military officers involved in political activism. This allowed us to wear them out and defeat them. Now they are dispersed all over the place.
The president was able to re-take the situation and, in a daring action, we heading towards the referendum. I was one of the individuals who liked the idea of a recall referendum. I was one of the few in the government who liked it. I always believed firmly in the president. The triumph of winning the recall referendum gave Chávez great strength and legitimacy, nationally and internationally, and allowed him to pursue changes with even greater vigor. In any other government, in the U.S. or in Venezuela, this plaza occupation would have ended with repression because they would not have cared about killing these people. We always tried to protect lives.
MA: Do you think the same kind of mentality and priorities help explain the pace of nationalizations? That is, it isn’t done very abruptly, rapidly, at once. It’s a slow, long process, waiting for moments when it can be done, avoiding confrontations.
MRT: Yes, because this is a democratic revolution. We cannot say, “Ok, we won the election and will make a revolution and will execute all those who do not obey.” The nationalizations are conducted in a strategic manner, depending on the situation, based on the support that they provide to the process. I think the most important one was of the [state oil company] PDVSA, of assuming true control over it, cost us a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
MA: Now I have a few questions about your background? First, how did you become politicized?
MRT: I entered the military academy in the year 1984, and in 1985 I was transferred to a paratrooper battalion. Once there, I began making contact with members of the MBR [Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement, Chávez’s clandestine military group]. This group was an embryo for the formation of the MBR – in fact one of the individuals that I worked with for many years was one of the founders of the MBR, Commander Urdaneta Hernandez. He was my boss for several years. This is how I was influenced. Also, my older brother had always been a part of the left and entered the university in Maracay. I always discussed with him.
I was then transferred to the Presidential Guard. I thus began to distance myself a little from my companions in the MBR, but my experience in the presidential palace allowed me to open my eyes more to what was going on in Venezuela. The famous RECADI case, how the powerful managed the women of the president, the business deals they conducted, and how they repressed the population. The social explosion of 1989 I experienced from there; how they wantonly killed people [during the Caracazo of February 1989]. I saw large holes in the ground, in the cemetery, full of dead bodies, which were the result of the repression. This affected me greatly. Although I remained silent, I discussed this with my buddies. At night there was a curfew and we took advantage of that to discuss at night what was going on. We didn’t only discuss it, but repudiated it. This is how we generated consciousness. Also, when masses of people went out to engage in looting, what we did was to organize them, without repressing, because we understood the reality of the people and it hurt us, how we were ordered us to kill them. Silently, we did not follow those orders.
From there, I returned to the paratrooper battalion and began to reestablish closer contacts to the conspiracy, until we got to February 4 [of 1992]. Until that time I was merely a soldier, with a conscience. I had been trained in the Special Forces. Later [after Feb. 4], I was imprisoned and I dedicated myself to studying, intensively, for the two years that I was in jail. History, politics, economics. We had discussion groups. From there we also started to organize civil-military Bolivarian committees. This was one of the most intense forms of work I did while imprisoned. We began to organize Bolivarian committees in all of the cities, which later turned into the Bolivarian Circles. This is where I developed more political consciousness.
We had contacts with people from the extreme left to people of the extreme right. We were also contacted by someone who was in prison in the U.S., from the Ibero-American solidarity committee, which was a part of the extreme right, who was trying to promote coup d’états in all of Latin America. And these people met with us a few times. They were, for example, supporting the “Carapintadas”, a group that was led by a right-wing military colonel of Argentina. They supported various projects of the extreme right in Latin America. Of course, when they realized that we did not support their ideas, they withdrew. Their top representative in Venezuela is Peña Esclusa, who three years ago we imprisoned for possessing explosives. He was the contact person for Chávez Abarca – a Central American, who we imprisoned here. He is one of the people who planted bomb in Cuba and in other places. We captured him while trying to enter Venezuela and sent him to Cuba. He’s one of Luis Posada Carriles’s men.
I got out of prison and I was stubborn and I did not want to ask for a discharge. I did not ask for it because I wanted to annoy the military, more than that I wanted to remain in the military. And so, from 1994 to 1998 I passed through all of Venezuela, all of the border regions. They invented border posts and placed me there. I was in places where I lost 25 kilograms of weight, far in the south of Venezuela. Even through I was completely isolated, I had my books and my contacts and made contact with local communities. Also, I had clandestine meetings with Hugo Chávez.
In 1997, I met with Chávez in the city of Coro. He had sent me a message, asking to meet with me. At the time I was still an active duty officer. I couldn’t command or speak to troops, though because they had me segregated. We met in the middle of Los Medanos, which is a dune desert. Commandante Chávez was wearing a wig and a hat. To find him, I had circled 200 hundred times, also because I was being followed by the DISIP [intelligence service] and we met below a plant. Chávez said to me, “Miguel, ask for a discharge and come with me. We will create a great movement in the streets.” My response was, “My Commandante, honestly, I believe that you will be president of the Venezuelan republic.” At that time he hadn’t launched his presidential campaign yet. He said to me, that this still has not been decided, whether to run. I responded, “You will decide to run and you will win.” I also said, “With this power of conviction that you have, it is impossible for you to lose the election. And when you win the election, you will need active duty officers who support you from within the armed forces. I will leave the military when you decide not to run for president.”
He ran, won, and I was in the armed forces. That same night when he won, he called for me. I presented myself to him in Caracas. At the time I was in Tumeremo, in the far south of Venezuela, Bolivar state. I then asked him, “Do you remember that I said you would win? Now we have to start the work within the armed forces because if we don’t have their support, our process is not going to last more than a year.” That’s why I stayed in the armed forces.
Before the 1998 elections I was imprisoned eight times. They followed me, isolated me, imprisoned me for one week or three days. That’s how I came into the government with Chávez. All these years, studying, learning about politics. In addition, our military education also includes a lot of political science and philosophy. My family background is in the working to middle class. After that I dedicated myself to studying a lot. I have post-graduate degrees in finance, conflict negotiation, master’s in logistical management, administrative science, as well as the normal military education.
MA: In your mind, first, what is the goal for socialism of the 21st century and, second, do you think that many Venezuelans could express Venezuela’s goals the way you would? And if they can’t, why do you think they can’t?
MRT: I believe that first of all we have a great deficit in defining what is socialism of the 21st century. Because, this Bolivarian Socialism – a term that I prefer – needs to be a socialism that is adequate to our reality. It must be a socialism that is not an exact copy of other socialist experiences in the world. But it must be centered in various key issues. First, in the issue of social justice, which has to do with a new model for the distribution of wealth. This is one of the richest countries in the world, in my opinion, and it cannot justify the existence of poverty in any way. We can construct a country with a people that are dignified and prosperous. We have to define an economy that will is needed for this. If it is via an state-based economy or some other system, but I think the most important riches and resources of the country should be in the hands of the state, which is what President Chávez did when he got control over the oil industry. Our entire economy, our entire society turn around what happens with the oil industry.
But we need to define what kind of society and economy are needed to achieve social justice. We have advanced in this. President Maduro has a team that is in the process of defining this. President Chávez also left us many writings and thoughts and work that is useful for this. Based on this we can construct a theory. Our socialism has many differences from other experiences. For example, on the topic of religion, compared to the Soviet Union they put an end to the Church. They turned churches into public restrooms. Venezuela is a very Christian country. This is a reality that we have to work with. Even those of us who are in positions of power are Christians. Before, Soviet socialism promoted immanence, values that are internal to the human, that they are good because of their human nature. Christians, though, believe in transcendence. This difference defines two distinct models for life. This obliges us to think about our socialism according to our reality.
So, first, our country needs to be one where there is no poverty, where the concept of the family is strengthened, and where the productive model is defined. We need to covert the whole oil potential that we have, downstream, into productive industries that generate work. Our wealth should also be directed towards agriculture, for the production of food. When we manage to become self-sufficient with regard to food and manage to produce downstream goods from the oil industry, for our consumption, then the revolution will be undefeatable. I would focus on ten main food products that are particularly needed, for example.
We need to understand that Venezuela is not an isolated island. The forces of capitalism are still surrounding us. This reality obliges us to pay attention this reality. It is very complicated to have a socialist production models and then to commercialize their products within a capitalist framework. There is the Chinese example, which is one possibility. It is a mixed model. And then there are other experiences.
What is your opinion on this?
MA: I do spend a lot of time working on economic vision: what is the alternative to capitalism and what is the alternative to what has been called socialism. The thing that we favor can be called either participatory economics or participatory socialism.
MRT: This is exactly an issue that I have been studying for the past few months, about an economic alternative to capitalism. Also, for the past three years I have been developing a model for humanist participatory management, looking at the question of how you can be an effective manager, with a capitalist philosophy and formation, while trying to build socialism.
Transcribed and translated by Gregory Wilpert