By Pedro Roig
The rebellion of the Venezuelan youth, demanding the end of Nicolás Maduro’s presidency, has brought into the forefront the nature of a regime that can be defined as a highly corrupt narco-terrorist state supported by Cuban military forces and Colombian drug cartels.
Venezuela, a country of 29 million people, is blessed with a good climate, rich land, the largest oil reserve in the world and access to major industrial markets. It has every expectation of prospering and becoming a modern, wealthy state. Yet the ruling oligarchy, led by the late-Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro, understood their revolutionary goal as a right to pillage the national wealth, turning the country into a decrepit caricature of Cuba’s Marxist failure and a secure route for Colombia’s narco-guerrilla to smuggle cocaine to the international markets.
The Cuban Connection
First and foremost, the Maduro government hold to power depends to a large extent on Cuba’s special forces of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) estimated at over 7,000. This is not counting medical and other support personnel (over 30,000) deployed throughout Venezuela.
In addition, Cubans helped train several thousand trusted Chavistas. Called collectivos, these motorcycle gangs can be seen in the videos and pictures helping the National Guard repress peaceful protests and shooting unarmed students (presently, more than 25 students have been murdered and over 300 hundred wounded).
Currently, General Raul Castro has several high ranking officers providing tactical and strategic advice to the Venezuelans, including General Leonardo Ramón Andollo, second chief of the general staff of the Ministry of the Armed Forces (MINFAR), Comandante Ramiro Valdés, former head of Cuba’s MININT, and General Carlos Fernández Gondin, second in command of the Ministry of Interior. The first two have spent extended periods of time in Venezuela organizing Cuba’s support for Venezuela’s repressive apparatus:
- “Comandante Histórico” Ramiro Valdés was trained by the efficient and brutal East-German intelligence agency (STASI). Valdes was the first chief of Cuba’s repressive intelligence force (G-2). He is now Vice President of the Council of State and member of Cuba’s Communist Party Politburo. Valdes has remained in Venezuela for extended periods analyzing intelligence information on Venezuelan military, active and potential opposition officers and retaliatory tactics to be enforced.
- Ramón Andollo is a highly trusted link between Colombia’s narco-guerilla FARC and Venezuela’s Armed Forces officers. For over 15 years, General Andollo has been the principal liaison between the Colombian and Venezuelan drug cartels. He has spent extended periods of time in Venezuela. It is reported by MININT defectors that General Andollo has met with Colombian guerrilla leaders in safe areas controlled by the Venezuelan Cartel de los Soles.
- Second in Command of Cuba’s Ministry of Interior (MININT), General Fernández Gondin and his staff officers are in overall command of MININT’s Special Forces (over 7,000) deployed in Venezuela.
In February of 1991, the documentary Cuba and Cocaine exposed Cuba’s involvement in narcotics trafficking. The production featured interviews with Reinaldo Ruiz, a Cuban who admitted in US courts his involvement in drug trafficking, Carlos Ledher, one of the founding members of the Medellín Cartel, General Rafael del Piño, Cuba’s highest ranking officer who defected to the United States, and US Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Jeff Karonis, among others.
Following is the statement of Jeff Karonis in Cuba and Cocaine:
The scenario would be for a small twin-engine airplane with maybe 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of cocaine, fly over Cuba, drop the drugs to a pre-designated rendezvous point to several boats.… many times it would be under the eyes or at least a Cuban military vessel would be in the immediate vicinity, right on scene with them.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Castro regime was in dire need of cash that would replace the Soviet subsidies. During this period, drug trafficking routes involving Nicaragua and Panama became prime operational areas. These drug trafficking links surfaced in the indictment against Carlos Lehder who admitted meeting with Raul Castro to coordinate drug shipments. Lehder also testified in the Southern District of Florida that Cuba controlled cocaine trafficking in Nicaragua.
The Cuba-Venezuela Drug-Trafficking Connection
In 1999, Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in Venezuela changed the Castro brother’s focus to South America. The Cuban government became not only interested in the large subsidies provided to them by Chávez’s government but also on the profitable drug trafficking routes already existent on the Colombia-Venezuela border. Cuba’s prior involvement in narcotics trafficking proved to be a valuable component in a growing partnership between Colombian and Venezuelan drug cartels, including these two figures:
- General Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios “El Pollo” is the director of military counterintelligence of Venezuela. On September 12, 2008 the US Department of the Treasury stated that General Armando Carvajal assisted the Colombian narco-guerrilla (FARC) in smuggling drugs and weaponry. He has been one of the most important links between Colombian drug cartels and the Venezuelan Cartel de los Soles. He has used military vehicles, aircraft, and watercraft for shipping drugs to Europe, Mexico, and the United States.
- Vassyly Kotosky Villarroel Ramírez is a former captain of Venezuela’s National Guard. In 2013, the US Department of the Treasury identified Villarroel Ramiroz as aiding Mexican drug cartels and facilitating the transportation of cocaine through Venezuelan territory. According to the report, Villarroel Ramírez “provided security and protection when cocaine loads and the proceeds from Mexico were smuggled from or into Venezuela’s Maiquetía International Airport via commercial or private aircraft. He facilitated the cocaine loads from Colombia through Venezuela in partnership with known drug traffickers.… The cocaine shipments benefited Mexican drug trafficking organizations, specifically the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, and the Beltran Leyva Organization.”
During the past decade, Cuba and Venezuela have forged a close political and military alliance. On the Cuban side, the Castro regime provides Venezuela with military and security support. Several thousand Cuban military personnel and advisers are now in the country. Several thousand Cuban doctors are also in Venezuela as part of Castro’s expanding international medical programs. In addition, the Cuban military helped establish a relationship between the Venezuelan military and the Colombian narco-guerrilla, making Venezuela a major drug transshipment point toward the United States and Europe.
According to economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Venezuela is providing an estimated US$13 billion in yearly aid to Cuba, including 80,000-100,000 barrels of petroleum daily. The Maduro regime has also invested in rebuilding the old Russian refinery of Cienfuegos.
Cuba has a major stake in Venezuela and in protecting these subsidies. The recent increase in Cuban troops sent to Venezuela highlights the Castros’ commitment to the survival of the Chavista regime and their concern with the growing violence in the country.
The most troubling aspects of this relationship are the growing drug trafficking and the continuous opposition to US policies. The inclusion of Iran in rounding out this triumvirate, has added a dimension of strategic importance. The proximity of Cuba and Venezuela to the United States makes the two countries ideal platforms for anti-American activities, specifically in the event of a US conflict with Iran. These two allies may be called upon to support Iranian policies and objectives.
This is an abridged version of the article “Venezuela-Cuba Military Cooperation and the Narco-Terrorist Connection” by Pedro Roig.
Pedro Roig is senior research associate and lecturer at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. Dr. Roig has taught Cuban history courses at various institutions, and is the former director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) – Radio & TV Marti. He holds a Masters of Arts degree from University of Miami and a Juris Doctor Degree from St. Thomas University. He has written several books including The Death of a Dream: A History of Cuba and Marti: The Cuban Struggle for Freedom. He is a veteran of the Brigade 2506.