Pro-government TV host at center of Venezuelan tape scandal steps down

Mario Silva, the Venezuelan host of the pro-government La Hojilla television show, announced he was stepping down from the program for health reasons, hours after a tape emerged in which he allegedly told a Cuban intelligence official about divisions and corruption within the administration.

Silva made the announcement on his program early Tuesday, but he insisted the tape was a forgery put together by Israeli intelligence to discredit him. He said his voice could have been pulled and spliced from his television or radio programs.

On the tape released Monday, Silva is heard talking about corrupt public officials, including the president of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello, who he said had set up dummy companies to elude foreign-currency controls. Silva also said Cabello was trying to undermine President Nicolás Maduro, and he speculated that Vice President Jorge Arreaza had been the person who was leaking information about late-President Hugo Chávez’s cancer treatment.

The accusations coming from Silva — a longtime Chávez confidant and a rabid backer of the administration — have rattled the country, but government officials have been dismissing the tape.

“If the opposition is feeding its hopes that we Chavistas are divided, then long live the revolution,” Cabello wrote on Twitter. “We’re more unified than ever.”

Ismael García, the opposition lawmaker who made the audio public, said the cases of corruption detailed on the tape need to be investigated by the congress, and he said Silva could be guilty of treason for passing information to a foreign agent. During his weekly radio show Tuesday, García said the man Silva was talking to was Lt. Col. Amaris Palacios of the Cuban military, who was working for the Venezuelan presidency in counterintelligence. García said Palacios was sent back to Cuba Monday shortly after the scandal broke.

Maduro has not commented directly on the issue, but on Twitter he wrote: “Let’s defeat fascism and its methods with the truth, revolutionary work and the strength of our union.”

The scandal has been a boon for the opposition, which has been challenging last month’s tight presidential race. Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro in the election, said the tape revealed the “deep moral crisis” of the administration.

“When I heard the tape,” Capriles told supporters Tuesday, “I gave the sign of the cross and asked ‘My God, who is running this country?’”

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