CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A former spy chief under the late leader Hugo Chavez is emerging as a political player in turbulent Venezuela, mistrusted by the opposition and despised by the government as he travels the country in a possible bid for the presidency.
Miguel Rodriguez Torres is a longshot who hopes to offer a third way for Venezuelans weary of the country’s violence and economic woes.
Reviled among President Nicolas Maduro’s opponents for leading a crackdown on anti-government protesters in 2014, Rodriguez Torres has also alienated government loyalists with his sharp criticism of the socialist administration.
But he nevertheless is finding an audience among Venezuelans who have abandoned support for a government that has failed to resolve the economic crisis but still distrust the opposition.
In a recent interview, the 53-year-old Rodriguez Torres blamed Maduro for destroying Venezuela’s oil-rich economy, failing to rein in violence from pro-government militias and silencing critics. He said he is wary of the street protests launched by the president’s foes and instead preaches a message of reconciliation grounded in his evangelical Christian faith.
“The rhetoric of hatred and fear that both sides have used is causing great damage to the country,” Rodriguez Torres told The Associated Press. “We have to think in the country’s interests first and not continue to see each other as enemies.”
Pollsters haven’t included Rodriguez Torres in their surveys yet, but his criticism of Maduro hasn’t gone unnoticed. High-ranking officials in recent weeks have accused him of treason or playing into the opposition’s hands. His aides say Venezuelan media are under pressure not to interview him and social media is filled with speculation he could be jailed for speaking out like other once loyal military bigwigs.
“There’s no third way or bridges of reconciliation with FASCISM,” Vice President Tareck El Aissami said in a recent barrage of tweets directed at Rodriguez Torres, a former ally.
A block from where Rodriguez Torres spoke with the AP, several hundred protesters squared off with riot police in a display of the near-daily chaos that has engulfed Venezuela’s capital the past month. More than three dozen people have died in the unrest and hundreds more have been injured.
Rodriguez Torres said he sees little point in the street protests. “In a crisis as deep as the one we’re facing the solution isn’t burning more things because the economy keeps falling,” he said.
Not that he would be welcomed at the protests. Despite attempts to present himself as a kinder, gentler Chavista, many political opponents accuse him of violating human rights for arresting dozens of protesters as interior minister. A pallbearer at Chavez’s 2013 funeral, he is also the creator of the feared Sebin intelligence agency known for rounding up activists.
Others trying to occupy Venezuela’s almost invisible middle ground include another Chavez army acolyte, Lara state Gov. Henri Falcon, and chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who shocked the nation by saying constitutional order had been violated when the Supreme Court briefly gutted the opposition-controlled congress of its powers a few weeks ago.
“Strategically, there’s a fertile playing field for moderate Chavismo,” political analyst Luis Vicente Leon said. “If they manage to get the support of independents, the opposition might find itself having to accept them out of necessity.”
Rodriguez Torres’ close ties to Chavismo’s military wing are what distinguish him from a growing cadre of administration critics on the left. While outwardly loyal to Maduro, many in the armed forces are believed to be unhappy with the government but fearful that if the opposition takes power they’ll lose privileges and influence accumulated during 17 years of socialist rule.
Rodriguez Torres was among Chavez’s earliest and closest advisers, drawn to the leader’s charismatic lectures when he studied at Caracas’ war college in the early 1980s. When Chavez led a military uprising of junior officers against President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, Rodriguez Torres commanded 38 rebels who ambushed a much-larger military contingent guarding the presidential residence. He was jailed for two years as a ringleader of the coup attempt that launched Chavez’s ascent.
After surviving a brief coup of his own, Chavez in 2002 named Rodriguez Torres to head the nation’s intelligence service, a post he held for much of the next decade.
Maduro fired him live on state TV in 2014. No reason was given, but Rodriguez Torres said he was punished for promoting a plan to rein in armed, pro-government militias.
After about two years of public silence, Rodriguez Torres took to Twitter, where he has 333,000 followers, to criticize Maduro’s leadership and call for a re-founding of Chavismo.
With Chavez now dead four years, “We have to rethink everything,” he said.
His desk is scattered with books by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs and one about the teachings of Pope Francis, and many of Rodriguez Torres’ proposals seem taken straight from the opposition’s playbook. He sees Venezuela’s economic problems rooted in decade-old foreign currency controls and says he would go to the International Monetary Fund, which Chavez railed against, for help it if put food on Venezuelans’ table.
He said he’d also like to patch up relations with Chavez’s old nemesis, the United States. Unlike many Chavez officials criticized for frequent shopping trips to Miami, Rodriguez Torres said he has never been to the U.S. and was blacklisted after the 1992 coup attempt.
“The only way to remove the poison eating away at Venezuela’s society is forgiveness,” said Rodriguez Torres, whose own path to reconciliation followed his daughter’s death in a car accident caused by someone else. “Whatever leadership emerges from this crisis is going to have to convince people of that.”