Here's why Venezuelan leader Maduro won't push his old rival out of the regime

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, center, speaks with National Assembly President Disodado Cabello at a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the death of independence hero Simon Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, center, speaks with National Assembly President Disodado Cabello at a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the death of independence hero Simon Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. AP

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro appointed a longtime rival, Diosdado Cabello, chief of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) this week in a move that seemed to bring the two men closer together, just when many Venezuela watchers thought Cabello's power in the regime had eroded beyond repair.

On paper, Cabello’s new position as head of the ANC holds even more power than the presidency in the troubled South American country.

So why did Maduro elevate someone who at times was considered the informal head of the military — as well as a fellow steward of the late President Hugo Chávez’s legacy — to a post that in theory could also make him a sort of co-ruler?

Experts said that’s because the regime sees even more trouble ahead, with hyperinflation increasing the people’s discontent even on military bases and a series of international sanctions and foreign lawsuits effectively threatening the country’s oil income, a scenario that is creating a sort of “all hands on deck” mentality.

“They are getting ready for the big fight,” said writer and Venezuelan former lawmaker Nelson Chitty La Roche. “They are looking for the best spaces where they can set up defenses and best withstand the hurricane that is coming.”

That’s the same reason, the experts said, for a number of Cabinet changes that Maduro made recently. Of the 12 new ministers he named, seven were women, in what experts saw as a desperate attempt to soften the regime’s image abroad and curb the application of even more sanctions.

“They are trying to clean up their image and distance themselves from the perception of a military regime, making it seem they are now a feminist government, respectful of human rights that is committed to peace and dialogue,” General Herbert García Plaza, a former Maduro minister, said from Washington.

Most of the sanctions applied by the United States, Europe and Canada have been accompanied by accusations that the regime is involved in corruption, drug trafficking and human-rights violations.

The announcement of the new ministers — which also included naming former ANC president Delcy Rodriguez to the vice presidency — did cut down the number of government entities run by military officers to about a quarter of them, compared to about 45 percent before.

But experts said that all the key positions and control of the income-generating offices still reside in the hands of the military in an attempt to keep the country’s generals happy.

Maduro also rescued Cabello, who comes from the cadre of military officers who accompanied Chávez in his failed coup attempt of 1992, from a political slide after he lost the presidency of the National Assembly when the opposition won control of the legislature in 2015.

While the legitimacy of the ANC has been questioned by the international community, the entity has the power to rewrite the Constitution, reform the state, and essentially dissolve other government branches.

Yet, experts said, there is no trust between Cabello and the man who brought him back from the sidelines, Maduro.

“They are both alligators at the same watering hole, and as such, there are no possible guarantees that ... there won’t be acts of betrayal,” explained Chitty La Roche.

Esteban Gerbasi, a Venezuelan political strategist who now lives in Miami, said the same goes for Cabello and former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, both having been sanctioned by the U.S. on suspicions that they are important players in the drug trade.

“While appearing to be ‘revolutionary brethren in arms,’ Maduro grants them certain powers and criminal territories to run as great mafiosi do. But Tareck and Diosdado don’t really trust Maduro,” Gerbasi said.

He added that “they fear that at any given moment they could be sacrificed.”

The rivalry between Maduro and Cabello is long-standing and well-known in Venezuela, and both leaders have for years been maneuvering around each other for control of the regime after Chávez died in 2013.

Maduro had been winning the tug-of-war but hasn’t provided the knockout blow, said Antonio De La Cruz, executive director of the Washington-based think tank InterAmerican Trends.

“Diosdado is on Maduro’s list of people he has to get rid of, but the thing is that now he cannot do it,” De La Cruz said, explaining that the ruler received a severe blow from his attempt to gain legitimacy through the presidential election of May 20, a process that much of the international community deemed a farce.

While Maduro needs Cabello now, he can’t rest easy with a rival so close by.

“This is a high-risk play that can go very badly if Maduro lowers his guard,” De La Cruz said.

Follow Antonio María Delgado in Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM