Venezuela sees cabinet shakeup amid rift speculation

Venezuela's ousted Interior and Justice Minister, Miguel Rodriguez Torres.
Venezuela's ousted Interior and Justice Minister, Miguel Rodriguez Torres. AFP/Getty Images

Venezuela on Friday ousted Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez after he was fingered by pro-government “chavista” groups for being responsible for the deaths of a handful of their leaders during clashes earlier this month.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro made the announcement Friday amid a mini-cabinet shuffle. Taking Rodriguez’s place is Carmen Meléndez, who had been Minister of Defense since July 2013. Gen. Vladimir Padrino López, a government loyalist and outspoken U.S. critic, will become the head of the armed forces.

Maduro didn’t mention the controversy swirling around Rodriguez but said the outgoing cabinet member would have “15 days of rest” before being appointed to other duties.

The change comes after an Oct. 7 clash between police and pro-government “colectivos” left at least five of their leaders dead including the head of the “March 5” colectivo Jose Odreman.

The colectivos, formed early in the administration of late President Hugo Chávez, are seen as part of the administration’s informal muscle. Some of the groups were accused of threatening and attacking opposition protests that caught international attention in February.

After this month’s raid, the U.S.-based security think-tank Stratfor speculated about divisions within government ranks.

“The events suggest possible fractures within the official and unofficial security forces that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro will have to rely on to secure the stability of his government in the coming months and years,” the group said.

A coalition of colectivos had planned a demonstration on Thursday to protest the attacks, but called it off at the last minute. Friday’s shuffle has led to speculation that Rodriguez’s ouster was part of the bargain.

Friday’s move also elevates the profile of Gen. Padrino, who will maintain his job as the head of the Strategic Operational Command of the Armed Forces as he takes on the duties of defense minister.

Padrino is perhaps best known for his outspoken praise of the late president Chávez and pledging the loyalty of the armed forces to his socialist policies.

“Chávez is not a political party or a pipe dream,” he said during a July speech before the National Assembly, “Chavez is a military, political and economic doctrine.”

Friday’s change comes as Maduro has seen his approval rating plummet amid an economic crisis and rampant crime. Falling crude prices in a country heavily dependent on oil exports are also rattling the nation.

Maduro has tried to shift the blame for the economy and the deteriorating security on opposition both inside and outside the country. He has often accused his foes of trying to topple his administration by force and Padrino has backed those claims.

During his July speech, Padrino accused the United States of engaging in “non conventional warfare” to promote a “coup d’état.”

State-run radio station Radio Mundial said the general’s power of oratory and staunch support of the regime makes him “the nightmare of the right.”