When asked to explain why their efforts to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro have fallen short, Trump administration officials typically cite the sinister influence of Cuba and Russia, which they say has stiffened the regime's resistance. What they don't speak about so much is a possibly more important factor: the Cartel of the Suns.
That colorful term refers to the drug-trafficking network that each year flies hundreds of tons of Colombian cocaine from Venezuelan airfields to Central America and the Caribbean for eventual distribution in the United States and Europe — and that includes some of the most senior officials in the Maduro regime. These men are not clinging to power because they are true believers in socialism, or because of their fealty to Vladimir Putin and Raúl Castro.
They hang on because, in spite of Venezuela's economic implosion, they are still reaping millions — and they are likely to find themselves imprisoned in Venezuela or the United States if they walk away.
Cocaine trafficking is just one of a host of criminal activities in which the elite of Hugo Chávez's "Bolivarian revolution" are immersed. There is also illicit gold and iron mining; fraudulent oil sales; rake-offs from food and medicine imports; and corrupt currency trading. Maduro and everyone near him, including his wife, his No. 2, and the ministers of interior and industry, are up to their necks in it.
Though both the Trump administration and Maduro's far-left foreign defenders prefer to describe the Venezuelan crisis in political terms, the reality is that the regime is less a government — much less a socialist one — than a criminal gang. That has two consequences that are complicating its removal. First, the money it is reaping from criminal activity is serving as a prop that allows it to survive U.S. sanctions.
Perhaps more important, the toxic taint on almost every top official makes it much harder to pursue the usual formulas for a peaceful transition, including the creation of a transitional government and amnesty for those who step down.
The collapse of Venezuela's regular economy has created dire shortages of food, water, medicine and power, and caused more than 10 percent of its 30 million people to flee the country. Yet the illicit revenue pouring in for Maduro's clique appears to be increasing. A recent CNN report said drug flights from Venezuela had risen from about two per week in 2017 to nearly daily in 2018; it cited one U.S. official as saying there had been up to five flights per night this year. In 2018, an estimated 265 tons of Colombian cocaine, with a street value of $39 billion, was trafficked through Venezuela, the report said.
Another new study prepared for the National Defense University by Douglas Farah and Caitlyn Yates found that even while the Maduro regime sold 73 tons of gold in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates last year to raise cash, its reserves grew by 11 tons — the likely result of illegal gold mining, including by Colombian rebel groups based in Venezuela and allied with the regime. Those sales could have raised close to $3 billion, more than enough to fund the security forces and paramilitary groups still loyal to Maduro.
Farah and Yates describe the Venezuelan regime as part of a regional network they call the Bolivarian Joint Criminal Enterprise, a "consortium of criminalized states and nonstate actors." They identified 181 individuals and 176 companies in 26 countries linked to Venezuelan criminal activity. Thanks to this enterprise, they say, "the Maduro regime has not collapsed and may not for a significant period of time. … The network's ability to adapt and diversify their criminal portfolio means that money continues to flow into the regime's coffers."
In theory, the Venezuelan opposition, the Trump administration and others seeking to leverage Maduro out could resolve to forgive all this. The opposition has spoken about amnesty for military leaders who turn on the regime, and last week, the Treasury Department lifted sanctions from Venezuela's intelligence chief after he defected.
As a practical matter, however, it's hard to imagine most of the Maduro mafia simply walking away. At least two of its capos have been indicted by U.S. federal grand juries. Another, former general Hugo Carvajal, defected to Spain last month — and was promptly jailed on a U.S. extradition request. He faces federal cocaine smuggling charges.
Some opposition leaders and foreign governments are hoping to broker a transitional administration that includes regime figures. But, as veteran opposition activist María Corina Machado told the Washington Post, "you cannot have drug trafficking kingpins … you cannot have individuals who are part of the mafia in gold trafficking, oil trafficking and gas trafficking, or food mafias." That, alas, may exclude just about everyone with the power to bring about a peaceful change in Caracas.
Diehl is the Washington Post deputy editorial page editor.