The arrival of Lt. Gen. Vicente Díaz de Villegas who claimed to have retired and to be traveling as an ordinary tourist to Venezuela naturally put Sebin, the country's intelligence service, on alert. Villegas cited tourism as the purpose of the visit and journalism as his occupation in the entry form, and stopped at the Alba hotel, formerly a Hilton joint now used by the Venazuelan government to host important guests and leftist conventions.
Known since the Franco epoch to be a hater of anything in any way attributable to communism, the Spanish general momentarily became a visible figure in Venezuela's political life regardless of his attempts to keep a low profile and to demonstrate that the objectives of his tour were recreation plus the accumulation of impressions to be cast into papers for his column in the conservative La Gaceta. It did not fly below the Sebin radar, though, that Villegas came to Venezuela in October, 2011 and, at the time, met with the Spanish ambassador and military attache. If the present visit was recreation and nothing else, it was unclear why the general opted for Venezuela and not any other country, a stronger magnet for tourists or a place where political tensions are not as intense. Who organized Villegas' trips and what could be the real objectives behind them? Above all, who set the objectives and was in charge? In any case, it was impossible to overlook the fact that the vacationing Spanish general skillfully evaded surveillance while in Venezuela.
Villegas' personal record invites an overview in the context. He was born in 1948 into a family with a tradition of military service, joined the Foreign Legion, and took part in punitive expeditions in Spanish Sahara. Villegas worked for the army intelligence in the 1970ies – 1980ies, cooperating tightly with the US Defense Intelligence Agency, then polished his military competence at the military headquarters training center and NATO's Defense College. The general's responsibilities at various phases of his career included the anti-terrorist protection of the Iberian Peninsula and missions in the frameworks of the NATO campaign in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the latter explaining Villegas' staunch antipathy towards Serbs. Villegas also headed the Spanish liaison group in USCENTCOM in Tampa, Florida, and was praised for maintaining steady coordination between the US and Spanish forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Villegas was appointed to a post in the army intelligence service in 2010, and while no details concerning his job at the agency are on display, the prevalent hypothesis is that the general is running Spain's secret operations against Venezuela. No doubt, Villegas' tours of the country were reconnaissance missions, but that may prove to be just one part of a bigger story.
According to the Venezuelan media, Villegas seemed to be keenly interested in the theme of evacuating Spanish nationals from crisis-hit countries. Based on the above, one is tempted to conclude that Madrid considers Venezuela to be a high-risk zone where the above type of activity will likely become necessary in the foreseeable future. It may be worth noting in this connection that the Spanish army command once conducted exercises for NATO officers with the agenda of “restoring order” in an oil-rich Latin American country. The corresponding scenario – an outbreak of unrest, a dictatorial regime's crackdown on protesters, a looming humanitarian disaster, and the advent of NATO forces to make the situation revert to normal – featured nothing previously unheard of.
There are no signs of serious unrest in Venezuela at the moment even though the October 7 presidential vote is on the horizon, while alarmist forecasts still multiply. The April, 2002 coup against H. Chavez failed fabulously, but the US intelligence community has done major homework since the time and must have put together completely new blueprints. The US embassy in Caracas remains the center coordinating the subversive activities against Venezuela. No doubt, its staff led by Chargé d'Affaires James M. Derham, a career intelligence operative, is bracing for a showdown with Chavez and his populist regime, and the capabilities of the US NATO allies are being maximally put to work. The intelligence operatives stationed in the embassies of NATO countries in Caracas take commands from their US colleagues, and the diplomatic staff from Canada, Mexico, and Central American countries (with the exception of Nicaragua) more or less abide by the instructions and questionnaires supplied by the US Department of State and the CIA. For the neoliberal governments in Columbia and Chili, Venezuela is an ideological opponent which, they fear, has a chance to lead its Latin American peers by example. As a result, both are inclined to align themselves with Washington on Venezuela, though, in fact, Columbian president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón switched from his predecessor Alvaro Uribe's policy of confrontation with Venezuela to a much more neighborly approach. Still, the Columbian oligarchy, top brass, and new generation of drug lords who are mostly short-leashed by the US DEA and the CIA are staunch enemies of the Venezuelan regime and would eagerly join an offensive against Chavez if Washington spearheads one.
The Spanish community is among the top-influential in Venezuela. It counts quite a few members of the business elite – bankers, company owners, and media tycoons who spare no effort to derail Chavez's socialist project and extensive welfare programs. In the days of the 2002 coup, the Spanish embassy threw its support behind the conspirators who, in return, promised to Madrid to treat preferentially the Spanish business in the post-Chavez Venezuela. It is indicative of the extent of Spain's involvement with the putschists that the presidential ribbon for their leader Pedro Carmona was – in a ridiculously premature rush – made in Madrid.
The Spanish government has learned the lesson and, these days, refrains from openly propping up the opposition in Venezuela. Instead, Madrid focuses on international leverage and anti-Chavez media campaigns launched via the vast majority of Spanish outlets including the EFE. Ludmila Vinogradoff, an ABC correspondent whose parents – Chinese father and Russian mother – fled from Harbin in the wake of World War II is a hyperactive contributor to the anti-Chavez's media war which she evidently fights to avenge her family history. Mrs. Vinogradoff churns out pieces targeting the Venezuelan regime, her latest idea which she continues to air being that Chavez is about to die from his widely discussed health problems. The empirical reality, it must be noted, is that the Venezuelan leader has outlived a number of such grim forecasts, continues to look healthier, showed up in the parliament to report on the job the government did in 2011, and emerged as an energetic campaigner ahead of the upcoming presidential race.
Chavez is perceived as unfriendly in the Spanish ruling circles and, as a result, Mariano Rajoy's government backs Venezuelan opposition champion Henrique Capriles Radonski. Spanish envoys held talks with Radonski in Biarritz and are known to get in touch with members of his team on a regular basis. Since Radonski could benefit from having a more convincing image internationally, a large portion of the plans revolves around drumming up support for him among Europe's iconic pro-democracy figures. Villegas took part in the activity when he visited Valencia to meet with Radonski's chief of security and other aides. The Spanish general allegedly faced a frightening incident on the last day of his tour of Venezuela – according to his account, two men stopped him as he was walking out of the hotel, introduced themselves as ETA members, and said they were trailing him and allowed him to stay alive only because ETA had signed a truce with the Spanish government.
No developments that could be interpreted as posing any danger to Villegas followed. On departure, he did have to spend a few hours at the airport in the company of Sebin agents who briefly borrowed his computer, cell phone, documents, and luggage. Asked what prompted his visits to Venezuela, the general said the costs of the tours were covered by a close friend of his and he was under the obligation to compile reports on the prospects for the Spanish aircraft-building companies in the country. Theoretically, that could be true, but, apart from serving as a paratrooper ages ago, Villegas never had anything to do with the aircraft industry and is an unlikely adviser in this sphere. Sebin suspects that his mission in Venezuela was completely different, though a search of his belongings revealed no implicating materials.
The general was interrogated again in Madrid, this time – by Spain's CNI intelligence service. His explanations lacked coherence and sounded unconvincing, causing the Spanish media to write that the more Villegas talks the less trust he appears to deserve. The story about the threats from ETA members, for example, was absurd – those were granted political asylum in Venezuela before Chavez rose to power, and the general with a background of NATO service simply replayed the CIA myth about links between the Venezuelan regime and terrorist groups. That alone lends extra credibility to the assumption that Villegas' visits to Venezuela were guided by the CIA and the Pentagon.
The Sebin probe into the general's tours of Venezuela stays open, and sooner or later the truth must surface. Venezuelan bloggers maintain that the point of Villegas' risky swing to Valencia was to recruit a Venezuelan air force pilot of the Spanish origin. The CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency planned to have pilots involved in former anti-Chavez plots to deliver bomb strikes on the presidential palace. The bomb strike threat was addressed to Chavez in April, 2002 in an attempt to make him capitulate. An air raid was supposed to parallel the Columbian mercenaries' May, 2004 attack on the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, but the Venezuelan pilot hired for the task was neutralized by the Venezuelan counterespionage agency.
Sebin is aware of the complicity of a number of members of the Venezuelan Spanish community in the brewing US-organized conspiracy. The internet release of the name and coordinates of the Spanish intelligence operative resident in Venezuela – José Antonio from Los Palos Grandes in Caracas, having phone Nos. 04140123039 and 04141160768, and being in contact with several Spanish businessmen and a Spanish financial corporation – was a step evidently meant to prevent the situation from escalating. The spy's full name and the coordinates of his contacts were not broadcast, meaning that the Venezuelan administration simply sent a warning message – pulling someone's chestnuts out of the fire is an unsafe pursuit.