Until three months ago, Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera was one of the most powerful men in Venezuela, serving as President Nicolás Maduro’s chief of the feared SEBIN intelligence force.
But, citing the growing humanitarian crisis in the country, and what Figuera said was his disgust at Maduro’s human rights abuses, the former military general says he joined the Venezuelan opposition and began to discuss ousting Maduro, eventually fleeing to the United States.
In an interview that aired on the PBS NewsHour earlier this week, Figuera told NewsHour correspondent Nick Schifrin that he believes U.S.-imposed sanctions are having a negative impact on Maduro and his cronies, despite their insistence to the contrary.
On Thursday, the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Maduro’s three stepsons, alleging that they helped run “a wide-scale corruption network they callously used to exploit Venezuela’s starving population,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
Maduro, who rose to power 2013, remains president after his disputed reelection in May 2018. In January 2019, on the day Maduro was resworn into office, Venezuela’s legislative body deemed the most recent election results illegitimate and installed its top lawmaker and opposition figure, Juan Guaido, as interim president. The U.S. imposed sanctions on Maduro and his inner circle and, later that month, announced its recognition of Guaido as Venezuela’s new leader.
Despite U.S. support for Guaido, Maduro is still viewed as Venezuela’s legitimate president by countries such as China, Iran, and Cuba, among a few others.
Though the current political crisis began in 2019, the country’s unrest reaches back years. As Maduro consolidated power, the nation was also gripped by hyperinflation and life-threatening shortages of food and medicine — a crisis exacerbated by the Maduro regime, which blocked aid deliveries as protesters took to the streets. In the last few months, Venezuela has also been plagued by wide-scale, periodic blackouts. More than 3 million Venezuelan refugees have fled to other nations.
According to Human Rights Watch, Venezuelan “security forces have committed serious abuses against detainees that in some cases amount to torture — including severe beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation, and sexual abuse,” as well as extra-judicial killings. Human Rights Watch also cited the Penal Forum in estimating that since 2014, more than 12,500 people were arrested in connection to the demonstrations.
Figuera said he had never tortured anyone himself, but acknowledged he played a key role in facilitating torture, illegal imprisonments and extortion schemes.
Figuera supported a coup attempt on April 30 in Venezuela, but when it failed, he went first to Colombia, then eventually ending up in the U.S., where he remains in an undisclosed location. The Trump administration lifted its sanctions on Figuera once he publicly defected from the regime.
Figuera also said he believes Maduro’s hold on power depends on the Venezuelan army, in which there are “alliances” that want Maduro to remain for now, but that Maduro’s regime worries that could change.