The term “useful idiot” entered the American political jargon in the 1950s to describe Cold War leftists who bucked the foreign policy establishment in championing peace with the USSR. Maverick hawks of the McCarthyist sort ascribed them the covert motive of aiding the Soviet enemy—resorting instead to slanders such as “fifth column” or “Moscow’s puppet”—, but History would later largely exonerate them from charges of deliberate subversion. They nonetheless drove a palpable wedge in US public opinion at a delicate time for national security that no doubt played in Moscow’s hands. Whether “idiot” or not, “useful” to the Soviets they certainly were.
Rogue regimes still thrive to his day on the public’s mixed and relativist perceptions of them. For a recent example, check communist Cuba’s official print rag, Granma, praising Bernie Sanders for his kind words on Fidel Castro’s so-called “literacy programs”. Venezuela is another such rogue regime, and much like Bernie’s whataboutery vis-à-vis Cuba’s mass jailing of political dissidents, Spain’s friendly dealings of late with Nicolás Maduro’s narco-tyranny have diplomats and analysts second-guessing whether the two are working in concert or if one is simply playing to the other’s naïveté.
Closer by the day
The two countries are linked in History, culture, two-way migration and economic ties, and Spain has for a long time led in shaping the EU’s engagement with Latin America. Venezuela’s opposition naturally had large bets placed on Spain leading Europe’s pressure on Maduro to leave power and for elections to be held under “legitimate leader” Juan Guaidó. For a while since coming into office in June 2018, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the left-of-center PSOE called for just such an outcome and urged EU partners to follow suit.
However, in the span of just a few months, Sánchez’s government has gone from the opposition’s natural ally in Europe to downgrading Guaidó to “leader of the opposition” and replacing its calls for free and fair elections under him with calls for “dialogue” with—and under—Maduro as the only path forward. In mid-February, Sánchez even shunned a meeting with the opposition leader in the early days of his support-rallying tour of European capitals, sending instead his Foreign Minister, the career diplomat Arancha González Laya, to trade vacuous niceties. This amounts to recognizing Maduro as the rightful leader of a country whose riches he keeps criminally plundering, and whose democracy he shows no signs of wanting to restore.
Former PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has also played his signature role as a “mediator” along similar lines, although with his effusive befriending of Maduro and his defense of the status quo, he resembles more like Caracas’ spokesperson in international fora. More recently, Raúl Morodo, who served as ambassador to Venezuela under Zapatero’s premiership, has been embroiled in a whopping scandal that puts him at the receiving end of €35 million from PDVSA’s coffers—Venezuela’s state-run oil giant—for lobbying and consulting services on Hugo Chávez’s behalf. Juan Carlos Márquez Cabrera, one of PDVSA’s former executives who commissioned Morodo’s services, hung himself in July last year at his Madrid apartment after giving sworn testimony of the scheme to Spain’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor.
This gradual rapprochement to Caracas is naturally worrying in itself, but what has most irked US diplomats and lawmakers is Spain’s underhanded enabling of Maduro’s money laundering through the Bank of Spain and the courts. In September last year, a Bloomberg article reported that, under stiffened sanctions and frozen assets worldwide, Venezuela is resorting to paying contractors through its central bank’s account at the Bank of Spain, which almost certainly amounts to money-laundering given the dubious source of the regime’s revenue that transits through there.
On Friday, a Spanish court denied a US deportation request for Javier Alvarado Ochoa, a minister for electric power development under Chávez whom Spain had initially obeyed a US warrant in arresting in May last year for money laundering operations involving PDVSA. The judge now alleges that Spain’s own investigation of the matter, along with the accused’s Spanish citizenship, render the deportation request moot. Alvarado Ochoa isn’t the only criminal that Spain refuses to deport to the US—in April last year, the country’s highest criminal court (Audiencia Nacional) freed Hugo Carvajal, Hugo Chávez’ military intelligence czar, shortly after being detained on charges of aiding Colombia’s FARC terrorist group smuggle cocaine into the US.
To the question “what has changed?” between Sánchez’s first months in office and now, domestic politics and Maduro’s endurance in power seem to have worked in tandem to drive him towards ever less hostile stances. His turning of what was initially an interim presidency into a parliamentary majority that affords him a PM’s full powers in November last year rested on a deal with the far-left Podemos and a coterie of separatist parties, after previously swearing to exhaustion he’d never come close to a deal with either. For background, Podemos’ leadership of unreformed communists has a long record of praising Latin American left-wing strongmen and cashing in juicy paybacks from Hugo Chávez in the form of advisory roles and subsidies to set up a friendly think-tank in Spain.
Even if Sánchez doesn’t overtly lobby against sanctions—his government has chosen the more insidious path of under-enforcing them—and Zapatero hasn’t yet called the opposition a puppet of US imperialists, there is little doubt that Spain’s standing on the fence between Maduro and Guaidó is helping the former at the expense of the latter. Through middle-of-the-road brokers, mediators and appeasers like Spain’s leaders, Maduro buys precious time, keeps further sanctions at bay and even recovers some of its lost international standing. The benefit of such middle-ground strategies to him is amplified to the extent Spain has palpably strayed away from the EU’s relatively—but insufficiently—tough tone and sanctions against his regime, by giving the appearance of a fractured international opposition to his staying in power.
The question, therefore, is not whether or not Spain is aiding Maduro—you’d have to be blind or working for Spain’s government not to see it. The question instead becomes: is it a deliberate lifeline, or an unintended byproduct? Is Spain a willful collaborator or a “useful idiot”? To that question, Delcygate provides the most recent test case, and the jury is still out on exactly what role Spain plays in the scandal—and the wider relationship with Venezuela.
A tale of lies, cover-ups and (illegal) tarmac diplomacy
In the wee hours of January 20th, as an unannounced—rather, announced at the last minute—Falcon carrying Maduro’s right-hand Delcy Rodríguez readied to land on the executive tarmac of Madrid’s Barajas airport, the only legal way for Spain’s law enforcement to deal with the arrival was to deny the plane entry. Delcy features in a blacklist of Maduro regime bigwigs whom the EU forbids its member states from allowing entry or even facilitating passage through their territory.
That’s exactly what Barajas’ customs officers and the national police got ready to do, until the politicians got in the way. Shortly after notice was given of Delcy’s imminent arrival, José Luis Ábalos, transportation minister in Pedro Sánchez’s coalition government with Podemos, gave orders to halt the deportation and rushed to meet with the carrier’s crew upon it touching ground. Although initially alleging he’d only met with a lower-level regime official friend of his, a string of revelations soon unfolded showing he’d done a whole lot more, falsifying one by one every one of the six different versions he successively gave of the encounter. Call it a deluge of lies.
According to the latest press reports based on anonymous leaks and yet undisclosed CCTV footage, Ábalos had a half-hour sit-down with Delcy on her plane before taking the crew to a VIP area past the customs checkpoint for another five hours. They were then bussed to another terminal where they boarded a commercial plane to Doha, their last scale before arriving to Turkey. Delcy was due to meet with Erdogan’s government that week to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Turkish-Venezuelan ties.
Not only was Delcy’s presence on Spanish soil under Ábalos’ watch a clear breach of EU sanctions—he was also key in making sure none of the crew’s passports were checked, in a reckless violation of Spanish law meant to leave no trace of their presence. CCTV footage even allegedly shows Delcy shopping at duty-free stores, casting an even darker cloud over Ábalos’ role. All bank accounts held by Venezuela’s sanctioned leaders have been frozen in the EU, which raises the possibility that Ábalos chipped in for their purchases, which would give the scandal a whole new financial dimension of possibly criminal conduct.
You’d think political blowback would instantly flow from a scandal like this—if not the underlying facts, at least the never-ending lies to cover them up. Delcygate has brought Ábalos severe disrepute in the opposition’s eyes, but it has only marginally sullied the government’s public image and is nowhere near plausibly toppling it. In a strange way, the cover-ups have proved successful, and all the opposition is playing on are a security guard’s eyewitness account—that cost him his job at the security firm contracted by the airport—, the court-ordered withholding—not yet viewed by the public—of CCTV footage that would have otherwise self-deleted per privacy rules, and a couple of far-fetched court cases that are sure to get stymied by government-friendly judges.
The press has even relayed anonymous leaks alleging Delcy spoke to PM Sánchez himself on the phone while awaiting to be let out of the airplane, while a trolleyful of luggage was unloaded onto a car bound for the Venezuelan embassy. The leaker alleges Delcy blackmailed Sánchez to let her in over dirt on Podemos, reminding him that “we had a deal”. An opposition politician from the Canary Islands even speculated on national TV that Delcy carried millions’ worth of ill-gotten gold from her country’s dwindling reserves to be sold in Turkey.
PSOE’s government has brushed this all off as “fake news” and paid-for dirt dug up as part of a right-wing ploy to destabilize an otherwise popular coalition. It remains dug on its heels, not only defending the legality of Ábalos’ plan but doubling down on his skillful merit in averting a conflict with Delcy’s Venezuela. Ábalos stubbornly refuses to resign, and PSOE’s chairmanship in most of Parliament’s committees all but precludes a congressional inquiry. Even Dolores Delgado, the nation’s top prosecutor—Fiscal General del Estado—and formerly Justice Minister—cue Spain’s dubious separation of powers—is largely seen as friendly to Sánchez and will hold immense power to stymie any independent investigation that may crop up. In short, the government is for now safe from Delcygate.
But its response to the scandal has been something else than successful. It’s been inexplicably clumsy, and not just because the never-ending gusher of lies got inexorably caught up by what little truth has seen the day. In his forceful response to a Q&A session in Parliament two weeks ago, Ábalos righteously played the innocent bureaucrat escaping a political vendetta, blithely seeming to ignore the mud of his own lies he’d been swimming in since the story broke. Plausibly to cut the government’s losses, PM Sánchez has even disowned his loyal darkest-hour aide, casting his deeds as those of a freelance operative.
When the government’s spin factory started pumping out lies by the day, I myself cried “willful collaboration”—and wrote to that effect twice in the PanAm Post (here and here). The sheer lengths the government had gone to to cover up the story seemed to portend a nasty, well thought-through plot more than a simple cock-up. But it is precisely the mix of loose-cannon behavior and clumsy incompetence that makes the “willful collaborator” hypothesis hard to stomach, I have come to realize.
To be clear: it’s not that the government is running some sort of shadowy scheme to prop up Maduro that I find hard to believe. It’s that it’s presumably carrying it out while simultaneously displaying a degree of ineptitude unseemly in even the roguest of states. Given the legal and political hazards of crossing EU and US sanctions—let alone spark the outrage of Spanish public opinion—, collaborating with Maduro while flouting the requisite stealth and coordination to keep it under wraps is simply suicidal. Spain is allegedly already under watch by the White House’s Mauricio Claver Carone and the State Department’s Elliot Abrams for the Bank of Spain’s shady operations with Maduro’s ill-gotten riches.
Making sense of it all
Blind spots often hold precious information, so detectives never stay fixated on one angle of the crime scene. Whatever its rationale in breaching the letter of EU sanctions to let Delcy set foot in Spain, hints of what may be really happening lie on the side not of Spain’s government—but of Venezuela. If the “willful collaboration” hypothesis is to be believed, it too has been woefully clumsy and incompetent. Take Delcy’s decision to only announce her arrival four hours prior to landing, when receiving airports require Advanced Passenger Information (API) of a departing flight upon boarding at the latest. If Spain really had some sort of underground covenant with Maduro and was prepared to flout EU sanctions to let Delcy land, why was API withheld?
Upon close inspection, it looks like Venezuela was operating on the presumption—not the certainty—that the government would ultimately cede and agree to have Delcy land in defiance of EU sanctions. The bet was based on Spain’s recent record of bucking the EU and the US’ tough talk against Maduro and even distancing itself from Guaidó—and proved successful. That the government chose not to deport Delcy at the last minute as was legally required is by no means proof—as some have suggested, including myself—that Spain is in cahoots with Maduro. A surer way to prove that would have been to give advance notice of Delcy’s presence in the place and wait for the government’s reaction.
Instead, Delcy chose to test Spain’s adherence to the EU’s negative pressure on Venezuela by presenting its air traffic authorities with the fait accompli of her troublesome arrival on EU soil. Refusing her permission to land would have signaled still firm allegiance to EU sanctions. Instead, Spain chose to override its own law enforcement, play to the edge of EU law—it actually ended up in blatant violation of it but punishment from Brussels is unlikely—and accommodate a regime it has grown decreasingly hostile to.
A second-degree question beckons: in the absence of an unholy compact, what was Delcy’s intent in testing the Spanish government’s growing friendliness to her regime? A number of pundits have floated the prospect that Maduro may hold compromising dirt on PSOE’s coalition partner, Podemos—whose leaders were bankrolled by Chávez in a former life—that, if released, could ricochet to PSOE itself and harm their coalition government. Empowered by the dirt, Delcy may have turned to Spain for a convenient scale on her way to Turkey, confident that PSOE would chicken out at the legal requirement to slap the door on her fingers.
There’s a second hypothesis that somewhat pieces together all of the above: bait. Perhaps Spain’s government never willfully collaborated with Maduro. Perhaps the variance with the EU’s common policy is simply a combined factor of bureaucratic inertia, judicial independence and shady networks. Its hosting of Delcy at the airport was perhaps not even premeditated. Perhaps it simply took the bait placed by a regime eager to generate the impression that its adversaries aren’t so united against it after all. And perhaps it got trapped.
Perhaps the government’s deft double-dealing with Maduro and his opposition is only collaterally boosting the former’s grip on power. After all, Spain has issued targeted condemnations of Maduro’s worst abuses and keeps welcoming Venezuelan refugees at a larger scale than any other EU country. Its oil giant Repsol has sharply cut exports to PDVSA and Leopoldo López remains in safe haven at Spain’s embassy in Caracas. The cross-partisan establishment of former PMs—including PSOE’s Felipe González—and party leaders to the right of Pedro Sánchez are just as aghast at Maduro’s follies as Venezuelans themselves. The government’s council of ministers ruled yesterday in favor of deporting Hugo Carvajal, the Chavista intelligence czar who has eluded detention after being released in April last year.
You may think this all somewhat absolves the government or lightens its responsibility, but there’s a different reading. Spain’s spontaneous, less-than-intentional lifeline to a most-wanted narco-criminal has all the downsides of “willful collaboration”—it suit Maduro just as well, to the extent it succeeded in driving a wedge amidst its opposition as reflected in Elliot Abrams’ condemnatory remarks on Delcyagte, in addition to Spain’s already lukewarm alignment with sanctions. But it comes with an additional aggravating factor. By blundering the operation from start-to-finish, Spain has proven to be no less malicious, and woefully incompetent.
At the end of the day, a “useful idiot” is no less “useful” because he’s an idiot