The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maduro’s ex-spy chief lands in U.S. armed with allegations against Venezuelan government

Gen. Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, the ex-spy chief of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, sat down for an exclusive interview with The Washington Post. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Josh Ritchie/The Washington Post)

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BOGOTA, Colombia — In a palace said to be filled with plotters, turncoats and thieves, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro could count on the loyalty of at least one man: Gen. Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera.

The muscular 55-year-old was one of the revolution’s true believers, having spent a decade as security chief for the late Hugo Chávez, the father of Venezuela’s socialist state and Maduro’s mentor. He studied the art of intelligence with the masters in communist Cuba. He reached the zenith of his power in October with his appointment as head of Maduro’s intelligence police — the feared SEBIN.

And yet, when the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced his uprising April 30 to oust Maduro, Figuera emerged as a surprise conspirator — and, as the uprising failed, a man suddenly sprinting for his life into the hands of U.S. operatives in neighboring Colombia.

After nearly two months in hiding here in the Colombian capital, protected around the clock by a security detail, Figuera arrived in the United States on Monday armed with allegations about Maduro’s government: The illicit gold deals. The Hezbollah cells working in Venezuela. The extent of Cuban influence inside Maduro’s Miraflores Palace.

The uprising failed, and Maduro remains in power. But Figuera doesn’t regret turning against his boss.

“I’m proud of what I did,” he said last week from a hotel room in central Bogota. “For now, the regime has gotten ahead of us. But that can quickly change.”

This is the story of how the opposition turned a man once thought to be unturnable — and the information he is now sharing with U.S. officials. It’s based on weeks of interviews with more than a dozen plot participants, opposition leaders and U.S. officials, including 12 hours of exclusive interviews with Figuera, his first with a major news organization, and by far his most exhaustive.

The opposition and the Americans have celebrated a measure of victory with the defection of Figuera — evidence, they say, that they have been effective and their effort remains viable even after the collapse of the uprising.

But as head of the SEBIN, Figuera ran an agency accused of arbitrary detentions and torture. He was one of five senior Venezuelan officials placed under sanctions by the Trump administration in February. His wooing indicates the moral trade-offs Maduro’s opponents have been willing to make in the effort to remove him.

Figuera defends his work advancing Chavismo. But he says he regrets some of its excesses.

“I have a big debt with the people who are still in jail,” he said, fighting back tears. “The people who had family members die and couldn’t even see them. This breaks me.” 

He continued: “There are many people there who are innocent, and I owe them. I didn’t do enough.

“I thought I would be able to make Maduro see sense. I couldn’t.”

Guaidó says opposition overestimated military support for uprising

Cat and mouse

On the balmy Caracas evening of March 28, the plotters against Maduro staged one of their riskiest gambits. Cesar Omaña, a 39-year-old Venezuelan physician, businessman and adventurer, nervously entered the towering headquarters of the SEBIN on a mission to recruit its chief.

Omaña, based in Miami, was living between two worlds. He was close friends with one of Chavez’s daughters and senior Maduro officials, as well as members of the anti-government opposition. Unlike other Venezuelan businessmen involved in the plot, he has not been charged with crimes and had no U.S. sanctions against him. But he was distraught by his country’s collapse under Maduro.

By November, Omaña was in frequent contact with U.S. officials, according to Omaña and the officials. He also established regular contact, even a budding friendship, with the opposition leader Leopoldo López — then Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner, and Guaidó’s mentor.

Omaña was nervous about meeting Figuera.

“He was the third-most powerful man in the country,” he said, sitting next to Figuera in Bogota last week in a black Top Gun ball cap and Yohji Yamamoto sneakers. “He could have just arrested me.”

Figuera was on the Americans’ radar screen. The sanctions froze any U.S.-based assets — he says he didn’t have any — and prohibited Americans from doing business with him. U.S. officials have said publicly that Maduro loyalists who turn against him may have their sanctions lifted.

Omaña and Figuera  commenced a kind of cat-and-mouse game, each trying to draw out the other.

“I told him, ‘Tell me something I don’t know,’ ” Figuera said.

Omaña launched into the opposition plan, then still being worked out.

“We talked about South Africa and Mandela,” Omaña said. “And we eventually spoke about an initial plan, a reconciliation law. Convincing Maduro to leave.”

“I told him I was ready to see Maduro leave,” Figuera said. 

“And I said, ‘Yes, you’re watching the game, but not playing in it,’ ” Omaña said. “And that kind of broke the ice . . .

“That’s when the conspiracy started.”

Inside the secret plot to turn senior Venezuelan officials against Maduro

Plan to flip the supreme court

In fact, another group of conspirators had already sprung into action.

In February, a group of Venezuelan businessmen, including media mogul Raúl Gorrín, who was put under sanctions by Washington and indicted on U.S. charges of money laundering, approached the Americans with a plan. The centerpiece, according to several people familiar with it: flipping key Maduro loyalists, including the chief justice of Venezuela’s supreme court, Maikel Moreno.

The men had been serving as interlocutors between the Trump administration and members of the regime, the people familiar with the plan said, and were eager to improve their own situations with the United States, where they were used to sending their children to school and their wives on weekend shopping sprees.

According to one senior administration official, the businessmen were told that if they were successful, travel bans and asset freezes could be reversed. The administration would not intervene with the Justice Department to lift indictments — but might put in a good word for those who were helpful.

“All we can do is to make the case to DOJ,” said the official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive policy issues.

Gorrín did not respond to a request for comment.

The businessmen were working to entice the chief justice to turn against Maduro. Their plan, according to several people familiar with it: Moreno would issue a ruling that would restore the authority of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The assembly had already recognized Guaidó as interim president. Maduro would be forced aside.

Officials in Washington were kept informed of the plot’s progress, according to several people familiar with the situation, and offered regular advice on steps forward. But the plot itself, Venezuelan participants and U.S. officials say, was homegrown in Venezuela.

Moreno would be allowed to stay on as chief justice in a transitional government. But people involved in the talks say Moreno also demanded tens of millions of dollars, to secure votes on the court and provide a safety net for himself. Figuera said he intercepted conversations on WhatsApp indicating that the total pool of cash demanded by Moreno had topped $100 million. 

One of the businessmen involved in the alleged offer said U.S. officials were told about it. He said the Americans didn’t endorse the idea, but they didn’t object.

Two senior U.S. officials denied knowing about the offer before April 30. It was only after the uprising crumbled, one said, that Washington learned of Moreno’s demand for cash.

How a plot filled with intrigue and betrayal failed to oust Venezuela’s president

Hezbollah, ELN and money

After his meeting with Omaña, Figuera said, he felt a spark of hope. He had worked for years in military intelligence. But his new job as head of the SEBIN, he said, had opened his eyes to the extent of the rot in Maduro’s government.

“I never saw the country’s situation and the government’s corruption as closely as I did during my last six months,” he said. “I quickly realized that Maduro is the head of a criminal enterprise, with his own family involved.”

Figuera had begun to investigate allegations about a company set up by an assistant to Maduro’s 29-year-old son, Nicolás Maduro Guerra. He said the company had established a monopoly on buying gold from small miners in the country’s south at discounted prices and selling it at elevated prices to Venezuela’s central bank.

He was preparing to go to Maduro with the information, he said, but was warned off by a key Maduro aide.

Figuera said he uncovered what he described as money laundering involving then-Vice President Tareck El Aissami, now Maduro’s minister of industries, who has been placed under sanctions and indicted in the United States on drug-trafficking charges.

El Aissami has publicly denied any wrongdoing. Neither he nor the other officials named by Figuera for this article responded to requests for comment submitted to Venezuela’s Ministry of Communications. The Washington Post could not independently confirm Figuera’s allegations.

Figuera said he saw intelligence indicating that illegal groups were operating in Venezuela with the protection of the government. They included members of the Colombian guerrilla group ELN, active around mining areas in southern Bolivar state and promising to provide a first line of defense should foreigners invade Venezuela.

He said he saw intelligence that Hezbollah had operations in Maracay, Nueva Esparta and Caracas, apparently geared toward illicit business activity to help fund operations in the Middle East.

“I found that the cases of narco-trafficking and guerrillas were not to be touched,” Figuera said.

As Venezuela’s misery grows, U.S. focus shifts to Cuba’s role

Raúl Castro on the phone

Yet the inner workings of a dysfunctional government divided among the personal fiefdoms of warring officials caused him the most despair.

He recalled a meeting with Iris Varela, Maduro’s fiery minister of prisons, and Vladimir Padrino López, Maduro’s defense minister. He said Varela was demanding 30,000 rifles to start her own private army.

“She said that she had trained male prisoners,” Figuera said. “That she was their commander.”

Maduro, meanwhile, relied on 15 to 20 Cubans for personal security. Some were military guards, Figuera said. But three Cubans, called “the psychologists,” served as special advisers who would analyze Maduro’s speeches to assess their public impact.

Figuera saw Maduro multiple times a week at cabinet meetings. When he sought a one-on-one meeting this year, he was told to go through “Aldo” — a Cuban.

“I was like, ‘What?’ I’m his intelligence chief, and I have to go through a Cuban to be able to meet with him?”

Power outages nationwide paralyzed Venezuela in March. Figuera and other senior officials were in a meeting with Maduro when Raúl Castro called, Figuera said. Maduro took the phone into a corner of the room to speak to the former Cuban president.

When the call ended, Figuera said, Maduro appeared relieved. Castro had promised to dispatch a team of Cuban technicians to help solve the problem.

“Raúl Castro was like an adviser for Maduro,” Figuera said. “If he was in any meeting, it would be interrupted if Castro was on the phone.”

In April, Figuera said, he delivered a message to Maduro in a locked suitcase. Only he and Maduro had the code. He described the country’s situation as deplorable and suggested new elections.

Maduro texted him the next day. 

“He called me a coward, a defeatist,” Figuera said. “That’s when I knew I had to act.”

As sanctions bite in Cuba, the U.S. — once a driver of hope — is now a source of pain

'Maduro was very nervous'

In the days following Omaña’s visit, Figuera said, he began meeting with Omaña’s top ally in the opposition. Leopoldo López had been shuttled between house arrest and a prison cell since 2014. Gaining access was no problem — Figuera, as head of the SEBIN, was his jailer.

During these meetings, Figuera said, he learned of the uprising planned for May 1. Moreno would issue the ruling reinstating the National Assembly. Padrino, the defense minister, would back the ruling and force Maduro out.

According to Figuera, the plotters were all given code names. Figuera, an Afro-Venezuelan, was the Black Panther. Omaña was Superman. Mauricio Claver-Carone, the U.S. National Security Council’s director for Latin American policy, was Comeniños — the Child Eater.

But as May 1 approached, Figuera said, he grew uneasy. During an April 23 meeting at Moreno’s Caracas mansion, he thought the chief justice seemed hesitant. Moreno suggested that he, rather than Guaidó, become president, according to several people who were present.

On April 27, Figuera met with Moreno and Padrino at Padrino’s home.

“It was a short conversation,” Figuera said. “They kept looking at each other nervously.” 

Figuera called Padrino the next day to reassure himself that the defense chief was still on board. But Padrino was watching “Avengers: Endgame,” Figuera said, and “didn’t want to talk.”

Neither Moreno nor Padrino responded to requests for comment.

Opposition officials have said they moved up the date of the operation by one day because they heard that Guaidó might be arrested. Figuera said he was the one who accelerated the time­table.

On April 29, Figuera said, he learned that Maduro’s feared colectivos were preparing a large-scale assault on a May Day protest that could result in a “bloodbath.”

He told Padrino of the new timetable himself. 

“Are you crazy?” Padrino responded, in Figuera’s telling. “What about the ruling? How are you going to do it?”

“It’s happening,” Figuera said he responded. “If not, May 1 will be bloody. . . . We have to move fast.”

Figuera and other plotters said they received confirmation that Moreno was prepared to issue his ruling on April 30. But after hearing Padrino’s skepticism, Figuera said, he began calling other military figures.

The plan, he insisted, had to move forward. But as it did, in the early hours of April 30, it began to fall apart. 

Guaidó signed a pardon freeing López from house arrest. Guaidó  and López made their triumphant predawn appearance at the La Carlota military base in Caracas and called for the military and the people to rise up.

Figuera drove around Caracas to see who was joining the effort.

His phone rang. It was his boss.

“Maduro was very nervous,” Figuera said. “He kept asking me, ‘What’s happening?’ ”

Maduro kept calling. Finally, around 6:30 a.m., Maduro told Figuera to report to the infamous Helicoide Prison.

“I called my wife and told her, ‘I’m going to have to turn myself in.’ ”

Venezuela’s opposition, government pursue talks to resolve crisis; U.S. skeptical

Still a Chavista at heart

Barbara Reinefeld, Figuera’s wife, was with family in Miami when her smartphone rang. Her husband ran through the failed plot and Maduro’s final order.

She insisted that he not turn himself in, that he make a run for the border. 

Two months earlier, during a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, Reinefeld had been contacted by two people who identified themselves as FBI agents. They interviewed her, she said, and established a system to communicate with her covertly.

Figuera said that he blessed this back channel but that he had no communication with the Americans himself.

Soon after her husband’s April 30 call, Reinefeld was contacted by Venezuelans in Miami, one of them a relative of Guaidó. A senior Trump administration official was aware of her plight, they said, and offered to meet her in Washington.

She flew to Washington on May 1 and received assurances that her husband would be safe if he got to Colombia. Figuera, tapping military contacts on the ground, fled the country, arriving in the border city of Cúcuta on May 2, where he was greeted by Colombian intelligence officers .

The next day he was in Bogota, meeting with U.S. officials.

Moreno, Padrino and other Maduro loyalists have said publicly that they had no part in the plot. Two days after the uprising failed, Padrino appeared with Maduro and suggested that he had refused the opposition’s overtures.

“Don’t come and buy us with a false offer . . . as if we didn’t have dignity,” he said.

Within a week of Figuera’s arrival in Colombia, the Trump administration lifted the sanctions against him.

Figuera says he has had a rocky time in his initial debriefings with U.S. officials. He has recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader but remains, at heart, a Chavista. He and others believed his life was threatened by Colombian guerrillas aligned with the Venezuelan government. Omaña arrived in Bogota last week to help negotiate Figuera’s safe passage to the United States.

Figuera is a product of the socialist government he served for years. He says he regrets some, but not all, of his actions on its behalf.

“If I told you I was Mother Teresa, you would not take me seriously,” he said.

Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report. 

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